THEATRE REVIEW: Lady Sasha is Bewitched by the Gothic Gore of The Grinning Man

A daring musical venture, chock full of gratuitous violence and questionable taste


Are you pig-sick of sappy West End Wendy trash masquerading as worthwhile entertainment? Join the club! Who needs the trite, laughable garbage peddled by the appalling Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical imbecile factory, all mercilessly castrated of any bite, bile or contentiousness by prissy committees fanatically devoted to killer inoffensiveness?

Not me! So thank Holy Christ and his beautifully diseased lepers for The Grinning Man, a powerhouse musical assault chock-full of gratuitous violence and questionable taste!

It benefits hugely from the source material: Victor Hugo’s daunting, 19th Century door-stopper The Man Who Laughs, with its masterly, iconic image of disfigurement as a Bowiesque metaphor for the singular, fabulous, and stunningly transgressive.

Savagely and deliberately mutilated as a child with a mouth slashed shockingly wide, protagonist Grinpayne directly inspired Batman villain The Joker, whose most deranged and gorgeous iteration appears in the comic Arkham Asylum, with an intoxicatingly omnisexual Joker dressed in nothing but shreds of Madonna’s Blonde Ambition-era lingerie.

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Still, no homage beats the raw abattoir magnetism of Grinpayne himself, and his semi-vivisected features ferociously– and unforgettably! – stamp The Grinning Man’s entire set design.

Enter, and you’re instantly engulfed by the stage backdrop, a huge rictus smile – ‘all the better to swallow you with, my dear’ – which, psychologically, feels like forced induction into compulsory, passive fellatio. With a muted, sepia rainbow palette ideally suited to its mock-Dickensian squalor, The Grinning Man plunges us into Grinpayne’s life, torture and redemption, a tale as voraciously immersive as the fiercest K-hole, but far less brief and much more satisfying!

So, let’s get plot-specific. Apparently mutilated by Barkinphedro (Julian Bleach) a sick-fuck clown like Stephen King’s Pennywise on steroids, Grinpayne’s raised with blind, female companion Dea (San den Besten) by his indifferent guardian, Ursus (Sean Kingsley). Initially – and very disturbingly – played by puppets, Grinpayne and Dea subsist as carnival freak-show attractions, until Grinpayne, improbably, regains the lordly title of his death-sentenced father. Still, that’s just the generic, Cinderella-style, rags to riches bones of the plot, but it’s the execution that counts!

All marvellously wet, pleading, seal-cub eyes, Louis Maskell’s Grinpayne is pure zeitgeist litmus paper, flawlessly hitting multiple, cultural pulse-beats with the lethal aplomb of Uma Thurman’s Kill Bill assassin. There’s a glorious bi-racial liaison between Grinpayne and besotted royal, Josiana – hello, Harry and Meghan Markle – and savagely satirical critiques of a deeply corrupt, inept government and unmerited, completely undeserved royal privilege.

In the twisted, steampunk London of the show, incest is enthusiastically described as ‘an ancient royal tradition’, and Barkinphedro, in his scene-setting prologue, clearly relishes mentioning ‘the cut-throat pig-brothels of Downing Street’. Exactly – who could possibly forget David Cameron’s jaw-dropping audition for the Bullingdon Club, playful penile penetration of a dead pig’s mouth?  

Still, why dwell on contemptible ruling-class depravity? Frankly, it’s the delicious, homo-liberationist subtext – completely open to every marginal variety of eroticism – that truly distinguishes The Grinning Man. It’s an anything goes ethos that facilitates the show’s stunningly inventive plot-twists, such as depraved princess Josiana’s (Amanda Wilkins) nymphomaniac fixation on Grinpayne’s mouth. She’s also a compulsive voyeur, commanding Barkinphedro to dance – ‘it’s like watching a cockroach having a wank’ – her nuclear, predatory promiscuity precisely typifying this perversely glorious world.

Quite adorably, there’s a simply divine torture scene, sure to have devoted S&M queens instantly wetting their collective panties in ecstasy! ‘Just one small slice and you’ll be living in a new world’ a torturer says, almost echoing my sex-change surgeon, with Grinpayne’s scapel-assisted mouth a new huge, erotic orifice full of ravishing possibilities!

And in a show crammed with astounding, theatrical coups, and a singular sense of wonder inexplicably – and unforgiveably –absent from mainstream, West End shows, it’s Julian Bleach’s conflicted, evil clown that will unforgettably stain watching minds until their death-bed agonies! Yes, he’s that good, so just sit back and let The Grinning Man’s gaping lips suck your imagination dry! You’ll be so glad you came!

The Grinning Man is at Trafalgar Studios until 14th April. Tickets and info at thegrinningmanmusical.com

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