I hated Grand Hotel at the Dominion in 1992. It seemed confused, distant, under-scored and under-lit and there wasn’t a character I could engage with. As tickled up by Thom Southerland at Southwark Playhouse, it’s the exact opposite – you really can feel like a fly on the wall of a luxury hotel as the characters whirl past in a danse macabre of intrigue involving sex, lies and ticker tape as fortunes rise and fall in the shadows, and love blooms and dies in the light of the chandelier.

This is the second time Southerland has done justice to the work of composer Maury Yeston who provided most of the newer and better songs since that dismal outing at the Dominion: the smartly re-imagined Titanic is now followed by an impassioned and concentrated Grand Hotel which both makes the complex storylines more accessible, but moves them on so urgently you have barely chance to catch your breath before the next one unfolds in your lap.

This momentum is driven equally by the seven-piece band which Michael Bradley leads with a baton – unlike most fringe MDs nodding from a keyboard – and boy can you feel the difference as he polishes Simon Lee’s new-minted orchestrations to a high shine, and by Lee Proud’s extraordinary, technically brilliant and dramatically pointed choreography that goes so far beyond period-predictable Charleston and Lindy Hop to drive the stories forward at a cracking pace: when the Baron and Kringelein bring their paso doble to its climax on chairs I wanted to stand and cheer, but the plot – always the plot – had another handbrake turn to frustrate deserved applause. But I was grinning with delight.

If you need proof that dance can make you happy, watch the trim two-stepping of the ‘Jimmies’ played by Jammy Kasongo and Durone Stokes. Although it’s a dance-driven show – in a narrow traverse setting which makes the choreography even more excitingly edgy – there is some glorious singing and both George Rae as an infectiously excited but hesitant Mr Bean of a Kringelein and Scott Garnham as the bankrupt Baron deliver performances to anticipate brilliant careers, Garnham already sings like a star.

Danielle Tarento’s casting is ingenious: it is of course impossible to imagine any staged depiction of the late Weimar Republic not enhanced by the kohl eyeliner and angular poses of Valerie Cutko but here as the fading ballerina’s seraphically and sapphically devoted companion she finds both her perfect role, and her voice. The invitation to Italian actress Christine Grimandi to make her London debut works brilliantly and she pirouettes carefully from her scenes with Cutko to her extraordinarily believable liaison with Garnham.

Under all this glitter the Flaemmchen of Victoria Serra as an ambitious stenographer who’s aiming at Hollywood burns just a little less brightly than you might expect given she’s the nearest thing Grand Hotel has to Sally Bowles, but her clinches with Jacob Chapman as the powerful businessman who has plans for her when his marriage and merger hit the rocks, are superbly vivid.

Well worth seeing, it may be another twenty years before it comes round again.

 

 

 

In the interests of ‘balance’  – something the sound design at Southwark Playhouse seems perpetually unable to achieve – we sent guest reviewer Patrick Shorrock to sit on the other side of the auditorium where the acoustics were distinctly dodgy.  He didn’t get the same impression at all :

Hotels have rich potential for drama: whether it’s the overworked, underpaid staff turning perfect service into an art form, as this is the only way that they can create meaning from a life lived incessantly at the beck and call of others; or the guests desperately exploiting the glamour and luxury of the hotel in a bid to anaesthetise pain, fear and longing that just won’t go away.

The guests in Grand Hotel certainly have plenty to sing about – whether it’s growing old and losing your balletic talent, imminent financial ruin, dying young without having lived, or simply not being able to afford the astronomical bill when you have to check out. There’s an element of mounting and slightly monotonous hysteria, as these individual neuroses collide and make one another more unhappy than if they had all stayed at home. The desperately unmemorable music lacks the bite and pathos of Weill, or the unerring showmanship of Kander and Ebb, and, as a result, it rather peters out.

The show is clearly not helped by the sheer number of people who have fiddled with it to no avail over the years: what we have is a revival of a 1989 reworking (by other hands) of a 1958 musical based on the 1932 film with Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford of a play of a 1929 novel.

The dedicated and talented cast are thwarted by acoustics that rendered inaudible too many of the words which are crucial to understanding the plot.  Southwark Playhouse needs to take lessons from the Menier in how to use microphones properly: there really is no excuse for this degree of unintelligibility in such a small venue.

It still makes for an interesting evening, despite being two hours without interval. One of these days I am going to start the Society for the Preservation of the Theatrical Interval – SPoTI ! There is some fine Charleston-inspired dancing choreographed by Lee Proud, and Thom Southerland’s production has some nice touches, it’s amazing what strategically deployed rose petals can achieve. The antihero in the form of an aristocratic con artist and thief, who has too much decency actually to con anyone is pleasingly unusual, though Scott Garnham’s looks were more attractive than his singing  – or was this the acoustic problems ?.

Something of the angst of 1928 Berlin, it’s set a year before the Wall Street Crash, rubbed off on the piece which is refreshingly negative and bitter for an American musical: a whiskey sour with a dash of absinthe rather than a champagne cocktail.  The descending chandelier and the staff stripping the guests of their clothes at the end were puzzling but unexpected, with a distinct suggestion that the staff actively loathed the guests – what a fitting climax that would be to the upcoming final series of Downton Abbey.

I found it pleasingly refreshing in an astringent way how they were depicted as out for vengeance on a casino society where all depended on arbitrary luck and self confidence – any resemblance with nowadays being very far from coincidental. It fitted well with the savagery of the music and was at least trying to say something, even if it wasn’t quite sure what.

Despite these plus points, it still feels more like Grand Budapest Hotel without the charm and lightness of touch or Cabaret’s much less attractive older sister with a botched late 80s facelift.