The Grinning Man (Musical) – Theatre Review

Based on the Victor Hugo 1869 novel ‘The Man Who Laughs’, The Grinning Man recently arrived in Australia in its premiere, with book by Carl Grose, music by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, lyrics by Carl Grose, Tom Morris, Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, directed by Miranda Middleton and presented by Salty Theatre and Vass Productions.

The tragicomic musical follows the tale of Grinpayne played by Maxwell Simon, a man whose face has been mutilated into a permanent grin with no knowledge of who, how and why. Together with his childhood companion Dea played by Luisa Scrofani alongside their guardian Ursus, played by Dom Hennquin, the three navigate through life, scraping by just to survive it.

Like a tilted picture frame, the set appears minimalistic but still had delightful surprises up its sleeve by having doors and windows that appear out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. The colours, styling and costuming look like something out of Tim Burton related movies but in a good way, think Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Admittedly, I was very confused for most of the first act. With the younger versions of Grinpayne and Dea, I kept noticing the younger Grinpayne not singing while being controlled by the adult Grinpayne and wondered why this choice was made. Why cast two people and only have one of them sing? But after doing some research post-show, I realised that the pair were meant to be replacements for puppets.

As soon as the younger versions of Grinpayne and Dea disappeared, The Grinning Man was much easier to follow. The abused and neglected Grinpayne longing to discover the answers to the questions he has, hidden in mysteries of his past that he can’t seem to remember.

Maxwell Simon’s vocals soared throughout the performance, shining in the role of Grinpayne, especially during the second act solo ‘Labyrinth’ which is as haunting as it is stunning, especially with Simon’s powerful voice.

Grinpayne appears confused, tormented and lost throughout the narrative and I felt pretty lost along with him. Simon’s chemistry as Grinpayne with Luisa Scrofani’s Dea also never feels forced and is a beautiful slow burn style of a love story between childhood friends and being each other’s solaces.

I was impressed by Scrofani’s performance as Dea. The character she plays is blind and I’ve no idea how she managed to hold her gazes without fixating or being distracted. I can only imagine how difficult this would have been.

Dom Hennquin’s Ursus appeared steadfast but deeply conflicted, carrying himself with both hesitance and grace while effortlessly exhibiting smooth and powerful vocals that embraced the room, particularly with the gorgeous song ‘Stars In The Sky’ that is the hero song of the musical. I cannot fault Hennquin’s performance.

Other cast members included the quirky but surprisingly sane Angelica played by Stephanie Astrid John who appeared to be the serious one amongst her siblings; Princess Josiana played by Melanie Bird, and Anthony Craig’s Lord Dirry-Moir. It was always a joy whenever the three would take to the stage, whether alone or together. Bird’s sexually charged Princess Josiana is a hilarious persona that I’m certain the actress has mighty fun with every night. Anthony Craig as Lord Diry-Moir was also my favourite of the production, stealing scenes by sitting amongst the audience, heckling remarks to the cast, all while being dramatic and cheesy but never to the point of cringe.

However, the incomparable of The Grinning Man is none other than Jennifer Vuletic as narrator and court jester, Barkilphedro. Vuletic grabs a hold of the role normally played by a male actor with both hands and transforms it into her own little playground. Witty, intimidating and maybe a little bit scary, Vuletic aces Barkilphedro like no other could. The way that Vuletic interacts with the Melbourne audience is arresting and masterful. We’re eating out of her hand before we even realise she’s taken control.

Actually, I loved how this production makes full use of St Kilda’s Alex Theatre. Patrons sitting in front row were met with the cast on multiple occasions, as the cast walk around near the front of the stage and run down the aisle at every opportunity granted within the storyline. The band are also on either side of the stage near the audience, so that the stage itself is fully used to tell of Grinpayne’s tragic life.

If I had to fault anything about The Grinning Man, it would be its humour. I didn’t find anything remotely funny but was held captivated whenever a cast member would sing, or a serious moment was unfolding before my eyes. Admittedly after the first act, I was concerned that I wasn’t enjoying the show and worried that The Grinning Man wasn’t for me. The musical though did a complete turn around in the second act and I found myself deeply moved by its conclusion, even shedding a tear.

The Grinning Man is an ambitious and mysterious dark fantasy musical that is bold, daring, different, and ideal for theatre enthusiasts. The music is gorgeous, the cast are solid with their mutant lungs (this is a compliment), and during a time where many productions keep bringing back shows that have been to Australia before, I applaud all involved for bringing something new. While the humour in the show is really not my cup of tea, and the direction of the puppets or lack there of confused me at the start, the rest of The Grinning Man more than makes up for it.

If you’re even remotely curious about The Grinning Man, please see this show before it disappears.

The Grinning Man is now on in Melbourne, currently playing at Alex Theatre in St Kilda until the 19th of May.
For more information and ticketing, visit:

Photography by Ben Fon.

Sign up to receive weekly updates on our most recent reviews.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *