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Grand Hotel (Southwark Playhouse)

September 22, 2015

Or “What I did during the holidays, part 2.”

Seen at the afternoon performance on 29th August 2015.

 In my (now rapidly disintegrating) notebook from “way back when,” I noted that the original, sadly short-lived, Broadway transfer of “Grand Hotel” at the Dominion Theatre was “Rich, dark Belgian Chocolate.” A black stage, a square of chairs and a chandelier, and anything could happen against that deeply melodic score and velvet lyric.

This first major London Fringe revival is, alas, closer to Cadburys. That’s not to decry the bar I love, but the truth is that it just isn’t of the same texture, nor are some of the ingredients of the highest quality. Too little cocoa, too much other stuff to bulk it out and dilute the “snap.”

There’s plenty to work with. It’s a well-costumed (Lee Newby / Eleanor Bull), and well cast production – more of which later. Simon Lee (Musical Supervisor and Adapted Orchestrations) and Michael Bradley (Musical Director) come up with one of the best orchestral accompaniments ever heard in a venue this size. Sadly, Andrew Johnson (sound design) is defeated by the space, so that rather more than a few words are lost.

And there lies the issue. What possessed the creative team to think that a long narrow “traverse” strip of stage was a good idea? No hotel has a foyer that shape, and this show’s foundation is the intense intimacy built between individual characters. If half the audience aren’t watching one end of the stage because there’s also something happening at the other, emotional energy dissipates and can never be re-gained.

While the odd large dance number works – newcomer Durone Stokes making a fine adult professional debut as Jimmy, working with Jammy Kasongo to provide the most fun of the night as a versatile song, dance and comedy double-act; and there is something to be said for the “flowers and petals” train station sequence, for the most part, too much is lost.

Scott Garnham’s perfectly delivered “Love Can’t Happen” perishes when half the audience can’t see Grushinskaya (Christine Grimaldi on finest form) reacting. Similarly, Victoria Serra’s cut-glass take on Flaemmchen sees a major, beautifully executed, routine performed to only 30% of the house.

For the rest, there’s a lot of striding around, Kringelein (George Rae) turning in a faultless dying performance despite being made to travel unexpectedly long distances. His initial “check in” encounter with anti-Semitism is perfectly judged, but how much of the audience saw it?

With neat character performances from Philp Rham (another sick man made to move around) as Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag, Rhiannon Howys as Madame Peepee, a chance to glimpse Valerie Cutko of the original production as Raffaela, and a couple of convincing “good time girls” in Leah West (Tootsie) and Ceili O’Connor (Trude), not to mention Jacob Chapman’s Hermann Preysing there’s a lot going on…

… and ultimately the director is defeated by it. A crucial sequence with money and love leading to humiliation is fumbled, and worst of all, a dire “Cabaret” (the musical) ending, with the rise of Nazi Germany referenced so crudely as to atomise the dust of emotions remaining, fumble wonderful opportunities. The show contains its own shades of darkness and light, and this director fails to trust them (or got ‘hung up’ on linking early small acts of racism at the start with a need to show how they have grown by the finish).

One day there will be another major revival of this show, and hopefully several of the cast will get to take part in it. Until then, it’s a chance to hear the score, enjoy some fine characterisation, and understand what a great show this could be.

 

 

Victoria Serra sings “Girl In The Mirror”:

2 Comments
  1. September 23, 2015 9:33 pm

    Thank goodness! We were beginning to think we must have imagined the whole thing, what with all the positive reviews and denial about the importance of sight-lines. If only there was a way to set up an early warning system for the traverse layout….

    • Steve Rich permalink
      September 24, 2015 7:50 am

      No, it wasn’t just you. Second time I’ve seen a show ruined by “traverse” this year. “In the round” or “three sides” often works (I think “three sides” could have been fun here) but a very long traverse rarely does. Only the Union Theatre’s “The Beautiful Game” got it totally right, I felt.

      I think “Grand Hotel” would have got better reviews if it had indeed staged differently. The ones I read weren’t as good as the material and performances deserved.

      An early warning system would be great indeed…

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