Tag Archives: Tom Morris

“The Grinning Man” at the Trafalgar Studios

The theatre world often fantasises about the next big British musical, and a home-grown piece is always something to celebrate, so this work, spearheaded by composer and lyricist team Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, has arrived from Bristol to the West End like a dream. The Grinning Man is original, polished and has a sense of integrity that, while making its success cultish rather than mainstream, wins respect.

The story is a fairy tale, heavy on the Gothic, but for grownups. Set in a familiar work, although with surprisingly little satire, our eponymous hero was disfigured as a child and is now a circus freak show. It’s a star role that Louis Maskell delivers with conviction. With a blind girlfriend and sinister adopted father in tow (Sanne Den Besten and Sean Kingsley), the much sung about “ugly beautiful” appearance of this charismatic changeling alters society for the better. The colourful royal family, with a strong quartet of performances from Julie Atherton, David Bardsley, Amanda Wilkin and Mark Anderson, all fall under his (inexplicable) spell. The only one on stage who seems immune is a villainous jester, for my money the lead of the show, brilliantly portrayed by Julian Bleach and winning most of the laughs.

The tale is as good as any by the Grimms. It’s based on a novel by Victor Hugo, and writer Carl Grose tackles it well. But the swearing, nymphomania and a bizarre incest plot make it adults only. It’s something of a puzzle – the temptation to appeal to a larger audience must have been great. A bigger problem is that the score only interests by including some bizarre electronic sounds and the songs aren’t catchy enough. While the dialogue is good, the lyrics, from Phillips, Teitler, Grose and also the show’s director Tom Morris, are too often uninspired.

Yet the production itself is an unreserved triumph. There’s fascinating movement and choreography from Jane Gibson and Lynne Page, accompanying Morris’s strong direction. And when it comes to portraying the worlds of circus and court, Jon Bausor’s design is magnificent. There’s a lot of puppetry, superb in design and execution, complemented by sets that are like a trip to Pollock’s toy shop. Topping it all, with a range of influences from steam punk to Gormenghast, are terrific costumes by Jean Chan. It’s the attention to detail, the look of the show, that puts smiles on faces.

Until 5 May 2018

www.thegrinningmanmusical.com

Photo by Helen Maybanks

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Barbican

Justly world famous for its work on War Horse, the Handspring Puppet Company has joined forces again with director Tom Morris for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that visits the Barbican this week. But what to do with a play that contains a donkey instead of a horse? Handspring’s solution is so audacious it caused audible gasps from a school party in the audience. Joey the noble stallion, this ass ain’t. And, without spoiling the surprise, the ingenious and mischievous approach sums up the spirit of this superb production.

A transformed Bottom, performed superbly by Miltos Yerolemou, leads workmen looking a little like East End hipsters, who are the funniest I’ve seen. Fast and loose with the text, these joyous “hempen homespuns” are the flashiest point in a thoughtful show that reworks the play from the ground up with the puppetry provoking depth and insight. One note, this is a production that benefits from a close knowledge of the play – although the rewards are too numerous to make any excuse for this warning.

The puppeteer actors are tremendous. Of particular note are a hilarious Hermia (Akiya Henry) and the stunning Saskia Portway who takes on the roles of Hippolyta and Titania. But this is a true ensemble piece, with most of the cast on stage most of the time, and Morris ensures that the puppetry infuses rather then overpowers the show.

And yet the puppetry is revelatory. Simple materials belie Handspring’s ambition, a challenge to the audience, to see how minimal they can be. Puck is an assortment of objects, engendered by no fewer than three performers. Planks of wood are given life by the whole cast, like some giant Cornelia Parker sculpture, to form the forest outside Athens, making it a living character in the piece.

Introducing a sense of animism is the show’s master strategy. The idea that spirits inhabit all kinds of objects makes this fairy world more vivid than we are used to: a dangerous, serious place that is magical and mysteriously real. Fly to get a ticket.

Until 15 February 2014

www.barbican.org

Written 11 February 2014 for The London Magazine