The Grinning Man | Trafalgar Studios

The Show

News of The Grinning Man spread through London in whispers like wildfire. Well, actually, there have just been lots of posters all over the underground and as a subscriber to a few theatre newsletters I was seeing it all over the place.

The posters for this play are beautiful and I was intrigued by the premise. Based on the Victor Hugo novel, The Man Who Laughs, The Grinning Man is the story of the titular Grinpayne and his quest to discover who carved the permanent grin grotesquely onto his face.

Set in an alternative version of our world, it opens with a musical number (of course) where you are introduced by the court jester Barkilphedro to the members of the royal family, each of whom is worse than the previous member. King Clarence is brutal, Princess Angelica is mute, Duchess Josiana seeks nothing but erotic pleasure and Lord Dirry-Moir is hedonistic.

The musical cleverly weaves together the stories of these characters with Grinpayne, the blind girl Dea and their surrogate father Ursus. Ursus and his family sell potions and perform at the Trafalgar Fair where Dirry-Moir ventures one day and falls in love with Grinpayne’s show. The play ties these two storylines with the fictional failed rebellion against the crown that serves as a backdrop to the musical.

The Grinning Man blends a mixture of dark humour, satire and intense emotion beautifully throughout the play. The puppetry used throughout is really well done and is very Tim Burtonesque. The humour in parts of the play reminded me very much of Blackadder and the satirical excess of the rich is very reminiscent of the eighteenth century literature.



  • The first reveal of The Grinning Man’s grin. We are treated to a special performance of his at the Trafalgar Fair where he ends by taking off the mask covering his disfigurement. Accompanied by flashing lights, the big reveal is definitely scary and worth the wait.
  • Mojo, the wolf-like hound that belongs to Ursus. He is a puppet controlled by two actors and the movements are really realistic and dog-like.
  • Use of the theatre space – there are parts where actors move through the audience to get to the stage which gives a larger sense of space despite the small stage.
  • The local references stitched in; referring to London as a cesspool and the disgusting nature of the fictional Trafalgar Fair (the theatre being just next to Trafalgar Square) were amusing and got plenty of laughs.

Low Points

  • The Grinning Man’s grin changes people and makes them feel strange which is never fully explained
  • Grinpayne is a little bit of a passive protagonist at times
  • Lots of set up in the first half gives it a bit of a shaky start (but the second half ties up the plot nicely)

The Theatre

Located just off of Trafalgar Square, Trafalgar Studios is a small theatre. The performance is quite intimate, so although our seats were near the back, the view was still very good. The acoustics however did not fair as well from the back seats. Although clear when a single actor was singing and not much else was happening on stage, when the chorus sang together it became difficult to decipher the words.

The set was great, and walking in it really feels like you’re in a circus tent with streams of beautiful colourful lights draped from the back of the theatre towards the stage.

I would definitely recommend seeing this for those interested in dark humour and excellent puppetry. I managed to nab some £15 tickets (which I’m not sure are around anymore but worth checking for from!) and under 25s can get £25 tickets too.

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