By Nick Myles
The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios is a unique blend of dark comedy, melodrama, music and puppetry – and while the focus may be on the tale of the titular “grinning man”, it’s his wolf ally Mojo who often ends up stealing the spotlight. As the musical heads into the final days of its West End run, we met the powerful animal for ourselves and learned more about how his puppeteers bring Mojo to life.
The wolf is standing directly in front of me, just a few yards away. Its eyes glint with reflected light as it raises its massive head – the wolf has seen me. It regards me fearlessly: What danger could I possibly pose to this powerful beast, its jaws lined with teeth that could shred me, its body rugged and muscular?
I remember what I’ve been told. I stand motionless and cautiously offer the wolf my left hand. It advances with deliberate slowness, sniffing and snorting, its eyes on me and my hand, as my heart rises to my mouth. When it reaches me I am statue-still as the wolf’s snout inches towards my fingers. What is it thinking? What does it make of me: friend or foe?
Abruptly, the wolf shakes its head with a snuffling growl – I flinch and have to fight hard not to run. Has it taken against me? But then it nuzzles my hand, briefly. I gather the courage to lightly stroke its snout, then its chin, and the wolf allows it because I had asked.
‘The offer’s made, the offer’s accepted, and then he makes the move,’ James Alexander-Taylor had told me. James and his colleague Loren O’Dair are actors who operate Mojo, the puppet wolf in The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios. On the theatre’s main stage, James and Loren have just demonstrated to me the importance of the human cast’s relationship with the puppet.
‘We call anyone who interacts with Mojo the Third Puppeteers,’ James said. ‘How they touch him, the space they give him . . . distance from a puppet is a huge statement. If I were to go straight up to Mojo and thrust my hand in his mouth to feed him, the potential of this story and animal is completely lost. Whereas if you just make the offer and allow him to close that space, the audience instantly understands the relationship.’
I couldn’t resist asking to experience this relationship for myself, and James and Loren willingly obliged, allowing me the rather thrilling encounter described above.
Based on Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs, The Grinning Man is a giddy mixture of gothic melodrama and knowing comedy. The piece revolves around the fortunes of young Grinpayne, who had his mouth viciously slashed into a permanent bloody grin as a youth. To get his revenge, Grinpayne embarks on a quest to find the person responsible whilst performing in a travelling freak show with his blind quasi-sister and lover, Dea. Within this tale of love and revenge, however, the puppeteers note that Mojo plays an important role.
‘[Mojo] helps find a young boy in the snow with a baby, and they become a family,’ James said. ‘Mojo’s role is being able to protect the family – his main focus is to be there for Dea and to maintain the family’s pack hierarchy, which shifts during the show.’
The Mojo puppet is itself a marvel of theatrical design. James is positioned beside Mojo and operates his head, which is connected via an articulated neck to his front haunches. Loren hunches over to operate the front legs, her own spine and legs forming the back end of the animal. It’s an extraordinary puppet/human hybrid.
‘I can’t see James as I’m staring at the floor. Our only point of contact is James’s forearm on my shoulder – he can sometimes cue me with a little squeeze of his arm, then I know he wants to do something, even if I’m not sure what!’ Loren said.
Thankfully, the two noted that this complicated endeavour has become easier as the two have continued to operate the two-man puppet. ‘When you work with someone long enough, the rhythms become really smooth,’ James said.
Loren agreed: ‘We can read each other quite well now.’
To an observer, the puppeteering in the show appears to be very physically demanding, especially for Loren. When it comes to the particular challenges of the role, James and Loren both noted the selflessness that puppetry – a craft ‘without ego’, as Loren described – demands.
‘The best puppeteers really understand their bodies – they’re very physical performers and they’re able to kind of take themselves out of being an actor standing on a stage saying lines, and to completely change their physicality and realise that the life and credibility of the puppet requires them to completely sacrifice to it,’ James said.
‘If it hurts but the puppet looks good and it’s telling the story, then so be it,’ he added. ‘It’s made of plaster so it’s quite light—‘
‘Well, it’s not that light after two hours!’ Loren interjected. ‘The elastic went in one of the front legs in last night’s performance – just snapped off. We had about 20 minutes until we could go offstage. I couldn’t put any weight on the front legs at all, but I had to continue to sell the walking pattern and everything by supporting it with my back. Nobody noticed – James didn’t even realise for ten minutes!’
James and Loren explained that the complicated wolf puppet also demands that they divide up their responsibilities to bring him to life. ‘Loren physicalizes the wolf, whereas my role is all thought process and emotion: what I’m trying to convey with eyeline, breath and sound,’ James explains. ‘Loren can feel that and put it into the rest of the body.’
‘I spend the whole show looking at the back of Mojo’s head,’ James added. ‘I have to keep my focus there and put my thought processes into it.’
Loren noted that she enjoys the more physicalised nature of her puppetry role. ‘I love being the animal, and I’ve played a lot of them,’ she said. ‘I don’t really think of myself as puppeteering the front legs – I think of them as extensions of my arms.’
Mojo also has two other actors who have helped to control him during the show’s London run – and though the puppet may stay the same, the puppetry duo noted that Mojo’s personality depends on the puppeteers behind him that performance.
‘It always takes on the personality of whoever’s doing it – if it’s not James operating the head then Mojo has a slightly different vibe,’ Loren said.
As in War Horse, little effort is made to hide the actors operating Mojo. His presence, it seems, is a distillation of the uniqueness of theatre: engaging the audience’s imaginations through performance rather than filmic realism.
‘That’s what’s interesting: trying to make it theatrical rather than as lifelike as possible,’ Loren said. ‘People sometimes don’t realise there’s a person doing the body – as if James has six hands and could be controlling the whole thing on his own!’
James agreed about the benefits of puppetry’s inherent non-realism, explaining that audiences have to ‘work harder if something isn’t completely there’.
‘If you get into a complete suit then the audience aren’t challenged – they don’t have to take that leap of imagination,’ he said.
Recent London shows such as War Horse, Table, The Girl with the Iron Claw and Something Very Far Away have proven the beauty and emotional power of puppetry. When it comes to his route into this unique art form, however, James noted that he ‘fell into puppetry quite accidentally’ after training as an actor.
‘I finished drama school and I was auditioning for things and a show came up that had puppetry in it. I did it and really liked it, and the next step was “Right, I want to do War Horse, that’s the best puppetry show”,” he explained.
For Loren, Mojo’s puppetry continues her tendency to ‘do very physical roles’.
‘I play animals a lot – I’ve actually played a wolf before, all by myself without my Wolf Husband!’ she explained. I love the physical challenge, which this definitely is.’
Before it’s time for me to leave the stage, I ask Loren and James what characters they’d like to see “puppet-ised”?
‘I’m always interested in a part-being/part-puppeteer. I’d like to do that with birds – maybe a flamingo, with part of me being it and part puppeteering,’ Loren said, as James suggested The Jungle Book as having potential to be an ‘amazing puppet show’.
‘We could do the wolf!’ Loren exclaimed.
It was wonderful to meet Loren and James and to gain a small insight into the world of puppetry. Mojo’s presence in The Grinning Man is one of the most remarkable and theatrical factors in a uniquely quirky production, and it was a great honour to meet him in person.
The Grinning Man is currently playing at Trafalgar Studios through 5 May.