The Grinning Man

by | May 4, 2024

Review by David Gardette


Presented by Salty Theatre and Vass Productions and marking its Australian debut, The Grinning Man offers Melbourne audiences a chance to see this very rarely produced show.


With a book by Carl Grose, lyrics by Grose and Tom Morris, and co-composers Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, The Grinning Man premiered in Bristol in 2016 before a West End stint in 2017/18.


This tragicomic musical is based on Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs and as is the norm with Hugo’s stories, The Grinning Man highlights the divide between nobility and the people, power struggles, deception, vengeance, love and revenge all with a fantastical, albeit obscure plotline.


A young man, Grinpayne (Maxwell Simon) whose face is disfigured as a child on the orders of the king, is taken in by a sympathetic apothecary / puppeteer, Ursus (Dom Hennequin).  Along with a young blind girl, Dea (Luisa Scrofani), whom Grinpayne rescues from the arms of her dead mother as a baby, the two are adopted by Ursus and used as headliners for his travelling puppet/freak show. With his permanently disfigured grin, the mysterious Grinpayne becomes a source of intense fascination and obsession by an incredibly dysfunctional Royal Court – the flamboyant Lord Dirry-Moir (Anthony Craig), the hypersexual and very bored Princess Josiana (Melanie Bird), eccentric Queen Angelica (Stephanie Astrid John) and a very dark court jester Barkilphedro (Jennifer Vuletic).


On its London debut, reception was mostly favourable, with praise for the brooding and interesting score, but critique for an unclear narrative. The storyline is on occasion overly complex and disjointed, which is down to the book rather than the direction, performances or this production. There is a lot going on in the two, very fast paced acts and requires real focus to absorb the narratives. But director Miranda Middleton has managed to capture the freakshow carnival-esque darkness while injecting some high camp, bawdy romp and silliness, allowing the audience some well earned laugh out loud moments.


As The Grinning Man, Maxwell Simon wonderfully captures Grinpayne’s obsessive search for truth to his disfigurement, while his vocal fills the Alex Theatre – it is an impressive sing! As his love interest, Dea, Luisa Scrofani brings warmth to the stage. Having first seen Scrofani a few years back in the musical adaptation of My Brilliant Career, her vocals and presence are equally impressive here. The comedic relief of the Royal household is led by a hilariously camp Anthony Craig, Lord Dirry-Moir, whose comic timing is superb, while Melanie Bird’s pouty indulged Princess Josiana is similarly impressive. Stephanie Astrid John’s oddball Queen Angelica is a treat. The conniving and manipulative clown, Barkilphedro, brilliantly performed by Jennifer Vuletic, as both the quick witted storytelling emcee and deliciously sinister farcical villain. Vuletic shines.


The Grinning Man will most likely divide audiences. You won’t leave humming a melody, you’ll probably feel a little undecided. But what it does do is transport you somewhere very different, eclectic and other worldly.


Cudos to the Alex Theatre for bringing challenging new works to the Melbourne stage.


For more information and tickets:


Photo credit: Ben Fon

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