If you are mining the classics for a rarely told story, Les Misérables proves that Victor Hugo is a profitable place to start.

The master stroke of the creative team at Bristol Old Vic is to re-imagine his The Man Who Laughs through the crazed and dirtied lens of Tim Burton, and to centre The Grinning Man on the brutally malevolent humour of a moping Machiavellian clown played to and beyond perfection by Julian Bleach.

In my crude mix of household liquid metaphors, Bleach is the glue that holds this chemical wedding together: his mastery of the absurd, the carefully crafted aside, and the honed sardonic tone he maintains throughout the lines and the songs is both a ‘best actor’ performance and the sine qua non of the piece.

Which is also a warning: without such a fine and diligent actor carrying the audience with his interpretation of Barkilphedro, the construction wouldn’t be nearly so cohesive.

After Bleach’s superbly baleful opening exposition, there’s a long and painful lull while secondary characters fail to clearly establish their place in the plot, slowly detailing the story of Grinpayne whose parents fell foul of some Mock Tudor court and he ‘scaped hanging by instead having his face carved into a rictus by the executioner’s scythe. Goodness and honesty shine forth from his mutilated mouth: he wins the love of a blind soprano and, less convincingly, a messianic following.

Theatrical Morlocks rushed to identify derivations from Blackadder, Black Mirror and Black Sabbath, and to spot influences of Kneehigh, Complicité and Punchdrunk in the development and interpretation.  To do so fails to acknowledge the genuine originality of the musical work, which pre-dates the Gerard Depardieu movie from 2012, and thereby undermines the astonishing creative collaboration between director Tom Morris, composers Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler and book writer Carl Grose.

The music is complex and exciting – there was an option at some point to choose between ‘a play with music’ and ‘a musical’ but the result has been a constant underscore of atmospheric material played on a variety of contemporary and early instruments by a keen band which helps weave the story together and – rarely for a recently-written musical – songs you remember the next morning.

Not that it’s perfect: for a production in which a scythe features so largely, it’s amazing nobody took one to the three-hour script. The ‘reveal’ of the scarred face comes too soon, and while the Bunraku and associated puppetry is impressive there is quite a lot of it including a gargantuan papier mâché head which looks too much like Ronald Reagan.

The cast is uneven.  Louis Maskell is entirely praiseworthy for his tender characterisation and fine singing as Grimpayne, especially through frightening prosthetics. There’s good support from Stuart Neal as a camp princeling, and Audrey Brisson as blind Dea, but Patrycja Kujawska as the Queen has an impenetrable accent which renders many of her speeches incomprehensible.

Although full of admiration for the scope and scale of the work, I have anxieties about where it will best be performed.

A conventional London playhouse doesn’t seem right, unless it’s the National – and an atmospheric dungeon like Waterloo’s Vaults may be too small and secondary. A large cast means it may earn royalties from amateur and drama school productions, but then there’s the issue of the graphic nature of the story and the script.  With its strong themes of redemption, and what passes for a happy ending, it could be modified into something more targeted on family audiences, but I’d prefer it to keep its noir credentials and attract a cult adult following, even if half of them are goths.

But wherever it goes, I wish it well.  A scar is born.


Julian Bleach - all photos by Simon Annand

Julian Bleach – all photos by Simon Annand

until 13 November