Grand Hotel

Southwark Playhouse

© Aviv Ron

© Aviv Ron

Big musicals on small stages don’t always work. But over the years, directors have proved how perfect small stagings can be.

Phil Wilmott probably started the craze with his pocket sized revivals of Hollywood musical greats at BAC (Battersea Arts Centre) twenty years ago. A fantastic pint sized Sweeney Todd ran rings round its larger brethren staged in a tiny south east London pie shop earlier this year.

But recently Southwark Playhouse in their far from salubrious or opulent surroundings have had an outstanding run of musical successes with Dogfight, Titanic, Parade, Mack & Mabel, particularly under the direction of Thom Southerland with producer Danielle Tarento.

Now their revival of Grand Hotel, the Broadway musical spin-off from the Hollywood film of 1932 (with Greta Garbo, John Barrymore and others) looks set to continue the tradition with another hugely entertaining Southwark Playhouse production.

There is something about 1920s/30s musicals set in Berlin – a mystique that hangs over them, perhaps being harbingers of the desperate, darker times ahead. Kander & Ebb’s iconic musical Cabaret – to which musically Grand Hotel bears many resemblances – appeared originally in 1966 (it was famously revived by Sam Mendes at the Donmar Warehouse in 1993, its first London production with Judi Dench as Sally Bowles being in 1968).

Grand Hotel – music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest, with additional material by Maury Yeston (book by Luther Davis based on Vicki Baum’s novel) – came later in 1989.

The upshot, to contemporary ears, is a pungent mixture of Cabaret style Kander upbeats with elegiac Sondheim-like lyrical dissonance, particularly noticeable, for example in the achingly melancholic Love Can’t Happen sung by Scott Garnham’s impecunious, gentleman thief Baron von Gaigern to Christine Grimandi’s ageing ballerina, Elizaveta Grushinskaya – a song that captures all the amazement of a serial philanderer falling truly in love, maybe for the first time in his life, and with an older woman from whom he initially intended stealing jewellery.

© Aviv Ron

© Aviv Ron

Garnham, blessed with the purest of tenor voices, sings this with ardour and passion, at times making it sound like a torch song from Les Miserables. Grimandi’s Grushinskaya’s responding Bonjour Amour with equal amazement to be touched in mid-life by the sense of being loved again is wonderfully abandoned, rapturous, ecstatic. Together, theirs is a lyrical high point in a show heavy with character cliché only because, thanks to the original film, those characters have become so much a part of our dramatic lexicon.

The scene is set in the opening number, a gloriously extended 15 minute curtain-raiser – if there were such a thing at Southwark – but which as staged by Southerland in traverse constitutes wave after wave of introduction to individuals and ensemble, guests on one side, hotel staff on the other.

Edgey, marvellously marshalled by choreographer Lee Proud to within an inch of our nearby laps without falling in (how do they do that!?), the various raffish characters soon make themselves known: the young secretary dreaming of movie stardom in Hollywood; the German businessman on the brink of bankruptcy; the young terminally ill Jewish bank-clerk; the Baron with a noble heart and the prima ballerina and her loving lesbian assistant. For all, `time is running out’.

And here, of course, is the musical’s – and no doubt for its composers and lyricists – other lure: a hotel – and a 1928 Berlin hotel at that – as a repository of hopes and dreams, innocence and decadence. And survival. All of human life is here, the hotel a terminal for some, a new beginning for others.

© Aviv Ron

© Aviv Ron

As the cynical Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag, a WW1 survivor given to mitigating life’s pain with regular bouts of morphine observes: `Grand Hotel, Berlin. Always the same – people come, people go. One life ends while another begins. One heart breaks while another beats faster – one man goes to jail while another goes to Paris – always the same.’

There are stand-out performances from Victoria Serra as Flaemmchen, the young secretary whose early `Girl in the Mirror’ song of movie aspiration really kick-starts the show; from George Rae as Krigelein, the bank clerk, sweetly, enthusiastically rediscovering life; from Jammy Kasongo and Durone Stokes as two twinkled-toed tap-jazz dancers recalling Hollywood’s Afro-American Nicholas Brothers dance stars of the ‘30s.

But really, it’s a company triumph for all concerned – music director Michael Bradley, costume designer Lee Newby, Lee Proud and director Southerland whose finale – a rising tide of suitcases and the ornate chandelier that has dominated the evening descending to the ground – symbolises the Kristallnacht to come.

One small caveat: why oh why in such small space is there still a need for performers to be mik’ed? Understandable, just, in a large auditorium, though often detrimental to the overall texture of sound, surely in a smaller, studio space performers are skilled enough in this day and age to project sufficiently?

Caveat apart, though, thoroughly recommended.

Grand Hotel runs at the Southwark Playhouse to Sept 5, 2015.