Thursday, August 6, 2015

'Grand Hotel' at the Southwark Playhouse, 5th August 2015

Berlin, 1928. Life in the Weimar Republic is politically, economically and culturally tumultuous. The economy is beginning to stagnate, unemployment is steadily rising, as is inflation, which will soon reach outrageous heights. On the bright side, Germany is going through a cultural boom, producing amazing cinema, jazz and modern art. Yet, just over the horizon you can hear the distant thump of jackboots...

For the most part, such worries seem pretty far away in The Grand Hotel. A temple to opulence, it's apparently insulated the miseries of the outside world. Staffed by immaculately turned out bellboys and frequented by sexy young flappers, aristocrats and businessmen it's a diamond in the necklace of Berlin. Yet all too soon, the problems of the outside world will seep through the gilded walls, corroding the luxury within.

This is promising stuff; I'm a known sucker for a musical with a political edge and I find the doomed Weimar Republic a fascinating piece of history. So it's a damn shame that Grand Hotel quickly proves to be a trifling piece of fluff populated by banal cliches. Straight from the stock characters file is the optimistic ingenue with hopes of screen stardom, the down-on-his-luck nobleman, the faded diva and the gruff ex-military cynic (with a gammy leg). It's like being stuck on a gigantic Cluedo board.

Worst of all is the cringeworthy Krigelein, a wealthy but dying Jew intent on one last taste of the good life before he pops his clogs. He's a teeth-gritting example of saccharine sentimentality, forever tossing out innocently upbeat comments about how wonderfully moral everyone around him is (spoiler, they're actually assholes), before periodically collapsing in coughing fits. Almost immediately after being introduced he reaches a height of obnoxious sweetness from which he never, ever descends.

One problem with reviewing this is that it's difficult to pick too many holes in the performances and staging. The cast is largely beyond reproach; Christine Grimandi does a decent job with the caricature ballet diva she's lumbered with and the striking Valerie Cutko as her gay admirer/assistant looks as if she's stepped straight out of a George Grosz painting. Enjoyable to lesser degrees are David Delve's grumpy Colonel-Doctor and Victoria Serra vigorously Charlestoning Flaemmchen.

The only genuine stumble comes with Scott Garnham's gentleman thief Baron. Down on his luck and indebted to gangsters, he's become a gentleman thief, seducing women to get at their jewellry. But though Garnham has a decent pair of lungs on him he's sporting an unfortunate scruffy half-beard and thus looks about as sexually dynamic as a damp dishcloth, which rather ruins the role.

The music and choreography is broadly competent. Some succour is given by the 8 piece band tucked away near the ceiling, but not even their rich sound can elevate a book of extraordinarily emotionally overegged songs. The dancing is a little better, especially when the cast launches into some flapper style click clacking across the stage, or when everyone is hustling and bustling around in the small space, but there's nothing here that hasn't been done better a hundred times before.

The individual cogs that make up Grand Hotel are all basically fine - but assembled into a machine it comes a cropper. The end product is a stodgy, over-cooked and largely indigestible musical with a facile historical perspective and an extreme reliance on creaky sentimentality. The closest I got to an emotional reaction was when a dancer accidentally spiked my foot with her high heel.


Grand Hotel is at the Southwark Playhouse until 5 September. Tickets here.

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