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Grand Hotel (Southwark Playhouse)

Danielle Tarento and Thom Southerland reunite for this 'cracking piece of ensemble musical theatre'

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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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.

Grand Hotel runs at Southwark Playhouse until 5 September. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

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