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Theatre Reviews

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GRAND HOTEL
Southwark Playhouse
Rating: *****

Sometimes the big musicals, first seen in the wide open spaces of theatres such as Drury Lane and the Dominion, achieve a transforming intensity when reconfigured for small, intimate stages. So it proved with the great Sweeney Todd (Watermill, Newbury) and A Little Night Music (Menier Chocolate Factory) and so it now proves with the reimagined Grand Hotel at Southwark Playhouse, directed by Thom Southerland, whose Titanic was a major success in 2013.

At first the narrow traverse staging seems wilfully perverse for a swirling, large cast show like this, set in the Berlin of 1928, and full of syncopated dance routines and interweaving stories involving the hotel residents and staff over one fateful weekend.

But it draws you in. The production is so fluid in its transitions and so smartly choreographed (Lee Proud) that it soon seems to be the only way to view this panoply of human life paraded before us like a ghostly dance of love and death.

Based on the original book by Vicki Baum, Grand Hotel is narrated by a morphine-addicted military doctor with a leg brace and a sly turn of phrase (David Delve), who oversees all the dramas and emotional entanglements with a weary and sardonic air.

A dying man who “has let life pass him by” comes to the hotel to find what he has missed and is befriended by a penniless Baron, who is persuaded to rob a fading ballerina in order to pay off a huge debt. When caught in her room he pretends to be a great admirer of hers, then finds that he falls in love with her. A lowly hotel clerk is desperate to leave his post to be with his wife whom he fears to be dying in childbirth, and a businessman on the brink of ruin attempts to run off with a temporary typist who wants to be a Hollywood star.

If this spicy confection seems considerably over-egged - any two of these vignettes would be enough for your average musical - it does create a shimmering whole that mirrors the society of the time. It strives a little too hard, one might say, to cover the full gamut of human aspiration, desire, failure and despair, but it certainly packs a huge punch. It has an overwhelming urgency and character definition down to the smallest roles. It’s beautifully performed and sung, especially by Scott Garnham as the Baron, Christine Grimandi as Grushinskaya the ballerina, Victoria Serra as the typist and George Rae as the dying Otto.

This is a cracking piece of ensemble musical theatre with excellent sound design by Andrew Johnson and a superb seven-piece orchestra.

A man in the front row opposite had a broad smile of wonder on his face for almost the entire, uninterrupted 105 minutes. He had much to smile about. And it knocked my memories of the 1992 West End version into the proverbial cocked hat.

 

FIVE FINGER EXERCISE
Coronet: Print Room
Rating: ****

Peter Shaffer is known, mostly, for his grand epic dramas Amadeus, Equus and The Royal Hunt of the Sun, but he cut his teeth in the tradition of the domestic well-made play of the 1950s, a tradition then most closely enshrined in the works of Rattigan, whose fascination for the inequalities and brutalities of love fuelled his greatest plays. Shaffer’s Five Finger Exercise, first performed in 1958, has all the emotional turmoil of The Deep Blue Sea with a liberal dose of Osborne-style anger. It’s very much a play of its time.

In the newly converted Coronet cinema we sit at dress circle level with a stage raised up to meet us. Thus, the well-furnished, elegant country house is suggested by black scaffolding and wooden planks, an arrangement which proves surprisingly effective in letting us in on the unhappiness and disappointments that are devouring the Harrington family. We see through the walls to the eavesdropping on the stairs, and the smiling expressions being assumed for the benefit of the young German tutor, Walter, who has come to live with them in this post-war world.

At the centre of the jagged family circle is the matriarch, Louise (Lucy Cohu) - all bust and bustle and well-bred sniping – who has married beneath her. Her husband Stanley (Jason Merrells), is a stolid furniture manufacturer who is unable to understand either his wife or his tormented son; he has the bluster and hurt male pride of a plain man caged in an environment not of his own choosing.

At nineteen, Clive (Tom Morley), has just started life at Cambridge, having been cossetted all his life by his mother as her “Jou-jou” and is full of anguish at his parents’ warring with each other as well his own sense of identity. The only light amongst all this shade is embodied by Pamela (Terenia Edwards), who bounces around with all the brash innocence of a fifteen-year-old on her way to a riding lesson. Fifteen-year-olds were clearly much younger in the 1950s than they are now, but you sense that there’s a big awakening just around the corner.

Walter, too, (Lorne MacFadyen) has his demons, but in finding himself a new family he holds a mirror up to their true natures. This could be seen as a formulaic device, but the play sidesteps such labelling by the sheer intelligence and psychological insight of the writing. This was Shaffer’s first success, and it’s easy to see why. There’s an even-handedness in the way he treats each character with sympathy, but he doesn’t draw back from exposing the raw pain festering under their supposedly comfortable middle-class existence.

Jamie Glover’s production is almost note perfect, and the cast are uniformly excellent. If the playacting between brother and sister doesn’t entirely convince, there are many telling moments – particularly when Louise is hoping that Walter finds her sexually alluring only for him to dash all her hopes of renewal by asking if she thinks it's possible to “find a new mother”. This is wonderfully and tenderly played by Cohu and MacFadyen, and brought gasps from the press night audience.

This is a richly deserved revival. And the venue is a marvel of revival too.


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