Louis Maskell: Rising star

Louis Maskell tells Nicky Sweetland about bringing new musical The Grinning Man to London’s West End.

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Victor Hugo’s novels are known for their rich storylines and complex characters. Both make them ideal material on which to base an epic stage musical. Les Misérables and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame became huge stage hits seen by millions of people worldwide. But there is one of Hugo’s stories that has never been made into a musical – until now. The Grinning Man has been adapted for the stage by Carl Grose and has the makings of becoming another classic.

Directed by Tony Award winner Tom Morris, the show – which features music by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler – ran at the Bristol Old Vic to universally high praise and has earned a London transfer to Trafalgar Studios.

It stars Louis Maskell as the unconventional eponymous hero.

“This show is a mix between Les Mis, Shockheaded Peter and War Horse” Louis Maskell explains. “The Grinning Man is a combination of those three. But it’s something completely different, too, and something the West End has never seen before.”

The story follows Grinpayne. As a child, he’s the victim of a terrible act of violence, when a gruesome grin is cut into his face. A travelling circus troupe adopt him, and he’s paraded as a freak before becoming the star turn. “The show is a gothic fairytale romance,” Maskell adds. “Grinpayne was cut as a boy and it’s about his journey to discover who inflicted this disability onto him and why.”

It all sounds rather bleak and Victor Hugo is well known for his dark fables. But Maskell assures me that there is a love story at its heart, between the tormented Grinpayne and another troubled youth called Dea.

“She’s blind and he’s got this affliction, so they are both ‘not normal’ and they find solace in each other,” Maskell explains. “He feels so much pain and suffering and she’s almost like this platform for him to use, I guess. Essentially, they have a very deep love for each other.”

Louis Maskell has previously performed in a number of classic musicals; he is fresh from Chichester Festival Theatre’s Fiddler On The Roof, recently appeared in Flowers For Mrs Harris (Sheffield Crucible) and played Tony in the UK tour of West Side Story. I ask if he prefers the challenge of originating a role.

“I always had an idea that I wanted to create stuff as opposed to slotting into a show that someone had already done. For me to be in a position where I’m originating a role and in the West End is a bit weird. I never thought that I’d be there, let alone be there with a show that I can say I was the first one to do.”

Unlike some of the other roles he has played, this one has also involved learning another performance technique. That’s because The Grinning Man features puppetry. But Maskell enthuses, “It’s just something you learn like dancing. I guess you have to put your ego aside, which is quite difficult for an actor.” He laughs, “This style of puppetry involves having multiple people on different limbs, so you have to really connect with the other performers and have this kind of weird three-way relationship.”

The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios
The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios

Maskell tells me that – much like with War Horse and The Lion King – audiences get the exhilarating effect of watching both puppet and performer convey the story.

“There’s something really interesting about puppetry in that you can do really small movements and yet say so much.”

The show opened last year as the climax of Bristol Old Vic’s 250th anniversary programme. But there have been some modifications and changes to the format ahead of presenting it to London audiences.

“I think whenever you set out on a new production, it’s good to throw things at it and see if it sticks. I think, for people who have seen the Bristol production and are intending to come and see the London one, they will find out that it is shorter and a lot clearer.”

Louis Maskell stars in The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios from 6 December to 17 February. Book now