Southwark Playhouse, London – until 5 September 2015
There is a gorgeous trinity almost akin to a planetary alignment, when producer Danielle Tarento, Thom Southerland and choreographer Lee Proud work together, and in tackling Grand Hotel’s dark and desperate depths they again achieve artistic success.
The dramatic potential of a hotel – and of the lives inside it, has famously proved fertile ground for writers. Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel, in The Shining told of the grand era of the 1920s and whilst 30 years and 5,000 miles may separate Southerland’s Grand Hotel from Hitchcock’s Bates Motel, both are hostelries to which people fled with dark secrets to hide and inevitable tragedy to confront.
Set in 1928 Berlin, Weimar Germany was a flawed nation and Southerland’s production hints at the ugly rise of National Socialism’s menacing tide. Checking in at the city’s Grand Hotel are a collection of doomed or burdened folk. There is the ageing prima ballerina whose star has fallen, a bankrupt Baron pursued by villainous creditors. Other hotel guests include an impoverished young secretary devastated by an unwanted pregnancy, a failed corporate chief exec and a Jewish bookkeeper riddled with consumption. That’s an awful lot of plot to weave in to a single act show of around 100 minutes – and to be fair whilst much of what Southerland and Proud achieve is downright brilliant, the odd performance falls short of the mark.
There is flawless excellence on display, at both ends of an age spectrum, from Victoria Serra as Flaemmchen the unfortunate secretary and Christine Grimandi as Grushinskaya the dancer. Serra enchants us with a painful desperation to escape her miserable lot, never finer than during The Girl In The Mirror. And when she’s not breaking our hearts she’s stunning the audience with her sensational dance, memorably in a sensational trio routine, Maybe My Baby partnered by Jammy Kasongo and Durone Stokes.
Grimandi devastates with a sensitive and perfectly weighted portrayal. Almost Norma Desmond like, such is the skill with which her complex fragilities play out, she craves the long-gone adulation of Europe’s opera house audiences, yet she is wise enough to know the frailties of her age. There isn’t a more finely crafted female performance in town than that of Grimandi, a star of Italian theatre, offers at Southwark. Also outstanding in a performance of the most subtly crafted devoted depair is Valerie Cutko’s Raffaella – maid to Grushinskaya, who nurses a secret, passionate love for her mistress.
Scott Garnham’s Baron needs work. Resonantly, beautifully voiced for sure, his dirty rotten scoundrel of a character doesn’t yet convince – and whilst Garnham has been gifted some of the show’s most visually striking moments, there’s a niggling two-dimensionality to his key role that disappoints.
Stepping in with barely a week or so to rehearse, David Delve’s Colonel-Doctor is another masterclass in understated brilliance. His morphine-addicted war veteran gives us a wry narrative, Chorus like, that strips away the facades of the wealthy and privileged guests and delivered with a presence that consistently commands our attention. Likewise, Jacob Chapman’s Preysing – an apparently happily married businessman who before our eyes descends into a misogynist monster as his business crumbles, is another well fashioned turn.
Lee Proud’s movement is, as always, ingenious. From ensemble representing the hotel’s revolving doors, through to glorious Charleston pastiches and immaculately created routines, Proud makes effective use of the tight traverse space.
And as for Michael Bradley’s 8-piece band, wow! With a sound that at times could suggest a full sized-orchestra, it is a rare treat to hear an ensemble so heavy on strings. There is more than a hint of a Palm Court ambience in Simon Lee’s orchestrations and Bradley’s immaculate execution.
It remains a continuing credit to Southerland and Tarento that together they have achieved a body of work so impressive that they can acquire the closely-guarded rights to such rarely seen shows. Grand Hotel may be dark and thematic, but presented in the Southwark Playhouse’s intimacy, its cast and creatives offer yet another display of London’s musical theatre genius.
Runs until 5th September
Photo credit: Aviv Ron