Victoria Serra (Flaemmchen) and the cast of Grand Hotel. ©Aviv Ron
It's 1928 and in Berlin the Grand Hotel is the finest place to stay and be seen. Guests range from charming, thieving nobleman Baron Felix Von Gaigern (Scott Garnham) and charismatic ballet dancer Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Christine Grimandi) on her umpteenth farewell tour, to young typist Flaemmchen (Victoria Serra) with big Hollywood dreams (and an even bigger secret) and the terminally ill Otto Krigelein (George Rae), who just wants to feel alive. The colourful cast of characters is only triumphed in eccentricity by those permanently present in the hotel; its staff members.
Southwark Playhouse has been on a winning streak with their productions recently. After the critically acclaimed Into the Heights they put on a powerful version of Carrie the musical, and with Grand Hotel they have created another spectacular show that will no doubt delight casual theatre-goers and stagey people alike with its perfect mixture of an engaging story, impressive performances and a heavy dose of richly layered musical theatre songs. And at just 1 hour 45 minutes in length, the show is punchy from start to finish with not a dull moment in sight.
With sweeping dance moves of glamorous women in sparkling flapper dresses and dashing gentlemen in smart suits, the powerful opening sequence, Grand Parade, instantly transports the audience to a Berlin of long ago. A hotel doesn't sound like a terribly exciting setting for a musical spectacle, perhaps, but the larger than life characters and their ambitions are hugely contagious and their stories playing out amid the haze of cigarette smoke are endlessly engrossing. The book by Luther David feels timeless and is complemented so well by the music and lyrics of George Forrest, Robert Wright and Maury Yeston, who have created a feast for the ears.
Not to mention that the production was stunning to watch, from the costume design by Lee Newby to the lighting design by Derek Anderson and from the minimal set, which was nothing more than an intricate chandelier and the occasional piece of furniture, right down to the impressive choreography by Lee Proud. The auditorium is on the intimate side and so the moments in the show where the large cast were on stage together could have easily felt crowded or messy, but instead it was an exciting experience as the tight choreography brought the characters so close that you feel part of the action, as if you too are wandering the exquisite hallways of the Grand Hotel.
And I haven't even mentioned the incredible cast yet. Scott Garnham's powerful vocals were almost too large for the venue and it was a thrill to listen to him in such close proximity. Victoria Serra, who I was previously impressed by in Titanic (also at Southwark Playhouse) and Spring Awakening, perfectly balanced small-town innocence and sensual ambition in her shining moment, The Girl in the Mirror. I was also particularly enamored by George Ray, whose Otto was the heart of the show and even made me feel a little teary towards the end. There wasn't a weak link in the entire cast though, and the moments where all their voices blended together were some of the most spine-tingling ones in the entire show.
Southwark Playhouse excels at stripped-down versions of great spectacle shows as they have shown once more with this splendid production of Grand Hotel. The title for this musical could not be more apt as everything about it is grand and ornate; the complex characters, the rich music, the exciting choreographic... it's a truly stunning show all-around.
Grand Hotel is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 5 September 2015. You can book tickets here.