IF you love the work of Kneehigh, the puppetry of War Horse and a barnstorming musical with a story that’s miles from hackneyed predictability, head without delay for Bristol Old Vic.
The first official show of the theatre’s 250th anniversary season has been five years in gestation, and reaches the historic stage in sensational form. Writer Carl Grose is known for his penchant for grand guignol, and it doesn’t come much grander than this adaptation of a short story by Victor Hugo.
With the stage framed by a vast bleeding rictus of a smile, the story starts as a young boy, his face in bandages, tries to board a boat full of refugees from the despotic reign of King Clarence. The other passengers see the child as a bad omen, and push him and his mother off onto the dock. His mother dies of cold, but the boy, encouraged by the ghost of a hanging man, continues on, finding a baby hanging onto life in the arms of her dead mother.
That’s just the start of this sometimes labyrinthine tale, re-set in Bristol at Stokes Croft Fair and in the imagined royal court. Timeless both in setting and in psychology, it’s a story of love, redemption, jealousy, cruelty, kindness and loyalty.
By the end of almost three hours we have met mountebanks, fairground barkers, wolves, princesses, swordsmen, blind girls and more, each of them seeking identity in the dark morass of a corrupt world.
The music and lyrics, by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, with additional lyrics by Carl Grose and director Tom Morris, are impressive and memorable, and the on-stage band makes sounds that range from the edgy and sleazy to the lush romantic.
Julian Bleach plays the baddie Barkilphedro as a cross between his award-winning Shock Headed Peter turn and the Tiger Lilies’ Martyn Jacques, archly relishing the ghastliness of his characterisation.
Audrey Brisson makes a speedy return to BOV after her Chagall performance as the blindly loyal Dea, with Louis Maskell fulfilling his promise as Grinpayne, the Grinning Man of the title.
The voice of Sean Kingsley, a former West End Jean Valjean, captures the torment of Ursus.
Burlesque is the style for Gloria Onitiri’s Josiana, and swashbuckle for her “brother” Lord David.
For aficionados of the Kneehigh style, there’s not a hair out of place in this show, which has the added dimension of direction by Tom Morris and his signature puppets, here poignantly and terrifyingly performed by Stuart Angell and Alice Barclay.
The story unfolds carefully and often surprisingly, and the finale coup de theatre is truly spine-tingling.
The more I have thought about it in the past 20 hours, the more impressive it has become. AND I can still remember two of the tunes – in my view an essential in a musical.
The Grinning Man of Hugo’s story had the unexpected effect of making everyone who saw him a better person. I can’t promise that, but do, please, book to see this mesmerising show, on at Bristol until 13th November.