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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Southwark Playhouse


  Victoria Serra and Company/ Ph: Aviv Ron

Once again the enterprising Southwark Playhouse (Parade, Titanic) proves that small can be beautiful. With just a narrow strip of stage (the audience being seated on either side of it) and a modest budget, director Thom Southerland miraculously captures the essence of a decadent Berlin between the wars in his resourceful revival of Grand Hotel.
Trailing a troubled history, this musical version of the starry MGM classic (itself based on a novel and play by Vicki Baum) in which Greta Garbo famously wanted to be alone, first surfaced in 1958 with a score by Robert Wright and George Forrest. It went nowhere for 30 years, then reappeared on Broadway in 1989 with additional songs by Maury Yeston. Despite poor reviews, it became a hit when Tommy Tune was called in to give it the kiss of life after a troubled set of out-of-town previews. It flopped at London’s Dominion Theatre in 1992, and found favour in 2004 in Michael Grandage’s downsized production at the Donmar.
At Southwark, with a few chairs and a chandelier comprising the set, audiences have to rely on their imaginations to conjure up the glamour of a five-star international hotel. The parade of characters includes a destitute, impecunious baron (Scott Garnham), a drug-addicted doctor (Philip Rahm), a faded prima ballerina (Christine Gramandi), the owner of a textile mill on the cusp of a major merger (Jacob Chapman), his pretty secretary Flaemmchen (Victoria Serra), and Otto Kringelein (George Rae), a dying Jewish book-keeper desperate to spend his last days in luxury.
Each has a story to tell, and in a show that runs under two hours, there is little time for in-depth character development. In such intimate surroundings, though, this proves less of a handicap than it might have been in a much larger theatre, and the thumbnail sketches that pass for fully-rounded lives work well enough. Southerland and his choreographer Lee Proud maintain a terrific pace and, departing from the original production, add a chilling coda that anticipates the imminent rise of Nazism. The performances, in general, are excellent.
There are, however, two important exceptions. Gramandi is physically wrong as the ballerina Grushinskaya. There is no way you can envision her on stage as Giselle. It would have been better had the text been tweaked to make her an opera diva passed her prime.
More damaging, though, is Rae’s Kringelein. He’s too young and too manic. Kringelein should provide this cynical musical with what little heart and soul it has. Remove this single element of poignancy and there’s no one to root for. It is also a mistake to have him perform a cartwheel. He’s a dying man.
This apart, there is much to admire in Southerland’s staging and Proud’s inventive choreography. And the band under musical director Michael Bradley is terrific. If it’s possible to get a pint into a half-pint bottle, they’ve done it here.


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