Review: Grand Hotel, Southwark Playhouse

With Carrie splattering the stage with blood a few months back and Xanadu getting its rollerskates on for its UK premiere in October, Southwark Playhouse is becoming the go-to venue for niche musicals and scaled-down revivals. The last time Grand Hotel was in London was at the cavernous Dominion Theatre, where it managed less than four months, but it feels more at home in a smaller space and this revival, directed by Thom Southerland, is very good indeed. David Delve steeped into the role of narrator Colonel-Otto Otternschlag (what a name!) when Philip Ram was forced to pull out for family reasons. He has a nice line in cynicism, moaning that nothing much happens at the Grand Hotel of the title when so much happens in the show. People fall in love, get shot and switch romantic allegiances, all within the space of a brisk interval-free one hour and 45 minutes. Photo by Aviv Ron The musical, which originally opened to packed houses on Broadway in 1989, is based on the 1932 MGM movie (which in turn was based on a book) – a fabulously camp drama set in a Berlin hotel and featuring Greta Garbo as a past-her-prime Russian ballerina fling herself on sofas in despair, John Barrymore as a dashing thief and Joan Crawford (before she got all hung up about wire hangers) as a stenographer who wants desperately to be an actress. The astonishingly nimble-limbed (and openly gay) actor Michael Jeter nabbed a Tony award for best featured actor for the Broadway production and if you want to know why just YouTube the clip of him and Brent Barrett performing We’ll Take A Glass Together on the ceremony’s telecast. The amazing footwork will leave your jaw on the floor. Photo by Aviv Ron The effervescent ode to boozing comes around two thirds into the show, which has music and lyrics by the trio of Robert Wright, George Forrest and Maury Yeston. (The latter went on to score Nine and the Titanic musical.) None of the songs has gone on to stand-alone success but the music is rather good - a mix of operatic romanticism, razzmatazz and Berlin cabaret. And that We’ll Take A Glass Together number? Crammed onto the small Southwark Playhouse stage, which is actually just a strip of floor with the audience on either side and only a chandelier for scenery, it couldn’t hope to top the Broadway incarnation amd choreographer Lee Proud wisely doesn’t try. Instead he turns it into a lark between two mates, played by an adorably geeky George Rae as the ailing Otto Kringelein and Scott Garnham as the robber Baron Felix Von Gaigern. The latter is perhaps a little less dashing than he should be but he’s in fine voice and he keeps the audience guessing as to whether or not he’s really infatuated with Christine Grimandi’s ageing ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya. (The character names in the show are so good they’re all worth mentioning.) And Grimandi channels Norma Desmond quite brilliantly as the prima donna who’s had more farewell tours than Cher. Photo by Aviv Ron I also really liked Victoria Serra, so spunky as one-named wannabe starlet Flaemmchen, and the supporting cast all work really hard to make the production fizz like a glass of fine champagne. It pulls the rug from under you too, ending on a startlingly sour note that suggests the good times are about to be over. But for a good time it’s well worth checking into Grand Hotel. RATING: 4/5 Grand Hotel is at Southwark Playhouse until September 5th. Words by SIMON BUTTON