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Interview: ‘The Grinning Man’s Director Tom Morris

23 February 2018 by Emily Moulder
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A show like The Grinning Man doesn’t come around every day. While musical theatre is no stranger to darkness and pain, it is often harder to find amongst the sparkles and the sequins of more typical musical theatre fare. Now, director Tom Morris brings a healthy slice of anguish to the West End, as perhaps an antidote to clean cut song and dance numbers and a smiling ensemble.

The show follows Grinpayne, a young man scarred physically and emotionally, struggle to accept his past and find acceptance in others. He and his makeshift family, each with secrets of their own, try to help Grinpayne discover the secret behind his macabre smile, inflicted on him as a boy.

Who was expecting the man behind War Horse to return to the West End with something so dark? Tom sees more than the pain behind the story; there’s also redemption and love, and to those who are familiar with Tom’s previous works, puppets feature heavily in the show, bringing a life force all of their own.

Photo Credit: Simon Annand/Bristol Old Vic

I ask Tom about his early experiences with theatre and to my surprise, talk of puppets comes up earlier than expected. ‘I grew up in a village in East Anglia with my dad who was the village doctor. My mum was also a doctor. And they took us to theatre occasionally as children. Actually, I do remember seeing a puppet show when I was very small, which I’ve not thought about for years. It was a puppet show of Homer’s Odyssey. I’ve no idea who did it – I was probably about 6. And I’ve never thought about that until you asked the question.

I did a version of Swallows and Amazons at the Vaudeville Theatre and there were some puppets in that – the parrot was a form of puppetry. So, I suppose the kind of theatre that I really like – theatre in which the audience are invited to imagine more than they can see – that is the style of theatre within which puppets and puppetry can really flourish. And in particular, puppetry can give you an emotional connection in that kind of theatre which is hard to recreate in any other way.’

There’s a surprising cyclical nature to Tom’s career, having experienced puppet theatre so early on. Audiences fell in love with the horse Joey in the smash-hit War Horse, and now again he’s making people believe in the life of the puppets in The Grinning Man. While he loves working with puppets, his affection for flesh and blood actors is clear.

‘I often admire pieces of theatre where you feel this invisible cursive watching the great artists on stage. But the thing that really gets me excited is, when you go into a theatre, you sense that the people on stage are working directly with you. They are absolutely revelling in their audience contact. That’s really where my passion for theatre came from. Finding people who did that and then wanting to do it themselves.

Funnily enough, I was talking to Ben Whishaw after the opening night of the fabulous Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre the other day. And you can just sense he is completely alive in the round –  it’s almost like he’s feeling the audience through his back when he’s facing one set of the audience. I asked him what he was experiencing when they went from that rehearsal room to this vivid promenade performance, and he talked about that sense of the presence of the audience. There are some actors who really feed off that. Those are the kind of actors that I most like to work with.’

Tom Morris making notes at a piano at a Grinning Man preview event. Photo Credit: TodayTix

The themes of the show, for the uninitiated, explore the ideas of pain, identity and how we process our past.

‘It’s about what happens when we’re confronted with people who are different from us. That’s really what Victor Hugo is writing about in the book and what Carl [Grose] has picked out to be his, sort of moral fulcrum of the play. Therefore, finding ways to gently put the audience in that position is part of what we’re doing in the production.

When people first see the Grinning Man’s face – people are quite shocked by it. Some people look away. And at the end of the production, to have them seeing something very, very different is part of what we’re exploring in the play.’

The Grinning Man encourages audiences to use their imagination to fill in the gaps between fantasy, reality and puppetry. It’s hard to be a passive participant in a show that requires your brain to multi-task with believing in the unreal of theatre but believing the reality of the puppets.

‘We want our audiences to go out thinking that they could never have felt the things they felt if they’d been watching a film. They might have felt some amazing things watching a film, but the things they felt in this performance are particular to what theatre can do, and that’s what we’re really excited about putting on stage.

Photo Credit: TodayTix

For example, lots of people really love the wolf, Mojo, in The Grinning Man. Part of the reason for that is that it’s clearly not a real wolf. So, when people look at it, they are kind of partly making up the wolf that isn’t there with their own idea of what a wolf is. They can then fall in love with it. Which is just how children play.

Puppetry in theatre can tap into that bit of our imagination that we develop as children and that never dies. We’re not used to using it and it’s a very liberating, playful and emotional part of our creativity. You can’t put a puppet on stage without inviting the audience to be creative, to be imaginative. Because it’s the audience who imagine live puppets, and if you’ve used puppets in the right way and in the right story, that can be very powerful.’

Having worked on a variety of successful shows over the course of his career, we discuss how Tom arrived at this point and who taught him the most valuable lessons along the way. His voice warms immeasurably as he pays tribute to two very influential people in his life.

‘I learnt a huge amount from Emma Rice, where I was working on writing text and co-authoring with her. What she showed me was how to generate in her way – I think my way is different, but I always aspire to be a bit like her if I can. Her great skill is getting a really amazing collaboration of everyone who is there in a rehearsal room, she just makes the room cook. She knows how to manage. She knows how to manage everyone’s talents to do their best work and how to get the creative best out of everyone.

With Marianne Elliott, I learned a vast amount from her – ending up in rehearsal rooms with these extraordinary directors. She told me that the people she loved most in the world were actors, there was something about what actors do which has a really simple and vast generosity to it. And I also learned a huge amount about precision work on text and the importance of preparation if you’re a director, the importance of commitment. I couldn’t possibly put on a show without having learned any of those things.’

Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott at the Tony Awards in 2011, they had won for War Horse. Photo Credit: Barry Gordin

It would be impossible to discuss The Grinning Man without talking about where it began its theatrical life, with Tom at the Bristol Old Vic. He became Artistic Director for in 2009 and when the venue fell into financial difficulties, Tom put together a resistance and saved this icon of British theatre from disappearing. He found life in what others considered a relic.

‘I was very inspired by the Bristol Old Vic where we made the first version of the show. It’s the oldest working theatre in the country and it’s really the last surviving, perfectly designed Georgian theatre where you have the audience on three sides of the stage. A bit like Shakespeare’s Globe or the Wanamaker theatre, it was designed to be played in open light with a big candelabra over the audience. And it meant that everyone can see everyone else and the architecture makes it clear that everyone has a different point of view of the stage, a different relationship with the stage.

The theatre is amazing – it’s like a magnifying glass on the stage and that was the biggest attraction, beautifully intimate. It’s the kind of performance that revels in the presence of the audience.  Then I discovered that there was in Bristol, and still is, a concentration of artists – people who are drawn to experimental work. There’s a great sort of creative magnetism to the place.’

Get tickets to see The Grinning Man at the Trafalgar Studios in the TodayTix Spring Ticket Event.

Related Blogs: Behind The Curtain at The Grinning Man, a backstage look!

Want more? Interview: Beginning‘s Star Justine Mitchell.

Available On TodayTix