Sunday, 13 July 2014

'Grand Hotel' at the Silk Street Theatre, Barbican

Every year the final year students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama put on a summer show and this year they've chosen to revive 'Grand Hotel'. I saw 'Grand Hotel' in its last production at the Donmar Warehouse in 2004 and fell in love with it. It's a very literate and intelligent show, quite densely packed with half a dozen lead characters all with their own inter-twining lives and plots. There are no real goodies or baddies in this show, it depicts the consequences of choices. It's a very clever show but I engage with it at an emotional rather than an intellectual level.

I generally have the memory of a butterfly flittering here and there but this musical has stayed with me over the years. I saw it twice in 2004 at the Donmar, one a programmed performance and the other a midnight HIV/AIDs benefit show. The Donmar production featured Daniel Evans as the dying Mr Kringelein, Mary Elizabeth Mastranatonio as the ballerina and Julian Ovenden as the Baron. The show made the tears well and roll down my cheeks at various places.

Right. So that's my history with the show and I've started off with the personal history to signal that it's an important show for me and I won't tolerate any laziness or mistakes in a production. So, Guildhall students, you have a high legacy to live up to and you certainly won't get an easy ride from me. Did the production work? Damn right it did!

As soon as I walked in to take my seat my expectations were raised by the art deco set of black and white marble floor and gilt trimmings, a versatile set that turns from the foyer, to a bedroom to the hotel bar. Then the music starts and the grand parade as people start milling in th foyer and we meet the lead characters: the Baron ('dangerous games and a carefree existence'), the Prima Ballerina and her Maid, the Book-keeper, the Typist ('I want to got to Hollywood') and the Businessman. We meet the front of house staff at the reception desk and the back room staff ('some have, some have not'), the gangsters who want money from the Baron and the impresarios who need to make money out of the Ballerina. There are a lot of intertwined relationships and themes in this musical.

It's quite fast-paced and we learn a lot about the characters in very short time, like the basic decency of the Baron by helping Mr Kringelein get a room in the hotel when he was about to be thrown out for being jewish and the Typist Flaemmchen being happy to dance with him as soon as she hears he's dying. So, yes, the Baron might be a thief (in the last resort as he says) and the Typist might want money to escape her dreary life but they're basically nice people.

The Baron tries to steal a diamond necklace from Grushinskaya, the Ballerina, but falls in love with her and she with him and this leads to two great songs, the Baron's 'Love Can't Happen' and Grushinskaya's 'Bonjour Amour' the following morning. Finally they have found love and all will be well, she will dance again and he will be her inspiration. On the other hand, we have Flaemmchen selling herself to the Businessman for one thousand marks to take her to America and it is when the Businessman attempts to rape her that the Baron appears in the room to save her. He was in the Businessman's room next door to steal his wallet and he gets shot in the struggle.

The Baron then appears singing 'Roses At The Station' with his last moments of life when he sings about being at the station with roses for his beloved Ballerina as he promised. We learn more about his life in this song, that he has been waiting for love,  "All my life I wanted to be here, all my life I waited to appear at the station with these roses..." and his privileged life,

"I spent my childhood in the fields
My boyhood on horseback
I was a soldier in the war
The bullets whizzed past my ear
And not one came near me till now..."

That's a big show-stopper of a song and the only way the song can be followed is by a couple of dancers coming on to dance a bolero as the Baron lies dead.

We then skip to the next day with police coming to investigate the murder and the Businessman is arrested, Flaemmchen leaving and Mr Kringelein checking out to go to Paris. Who will tell Grushinskaya that her lover is dead? No-one, they'll let her think he's deserted her like all the others, even her faithful Maid Rafaela who loves her mistress. Life goes on however, when Eric the receptionist becomes a father at last (singing a song that echoes one of the Baron's vocal themes) and Mr Kringelein and Flaemmchen leave together to head for Paris to raise her baby. One man dies and lives are wrecked but life goes on. It's a marvellous play with marvellous songs.

The cast were great and so was the music. The acting was good throughout and so was the dancing, it was the voices that drew a line between some of the actors. Best voices belonged to Rebecca Collingwood as Flaemmchen, Ceri-lyn Cissone as Grushinskaya and Emily Laing as Rafaela, all with nice, clear and strong singing voices. Kudos to Ceri-lyn for sustaining the believable Russian accent throughout. Sadly there are no photos of the production available but here's one of Rebecca as Flaemmchen.

The lads were good too, particularly Jay Saighal as the Baron, Joey Phillips as Kringelein, Ben Hall as Businessman Preysing and Jordan Renzo as Eric at the reception desk. Jay has a good voice but the ideal Baron remains with Julian Ovenden with his more powerful and versatile voice. I liked Ben's slowly corrupted Business man who starts off with honour and ends in shame and Jordan had a lovely voice when he sang of his new baby.

All in all it was a great production. It did, however, point to a few drawbacks. Age for one thing. The actors were all in their early 20s and sometimes it's just a relief to see actors of different ages and shapes on stage, not uniformly young and slim. Some of the lads seemed just too skinny for their clothes since they haven't bulked up yet. And where were the black actors? The two Jimmy's song is meant to be sung by black lads but where were they? A note for Simon Haines as the Doctor - great limp but, if you really do have a gammy-leg and a limp then most people learn to compensate for it in different ways - learn to do that and your future limps will be so much more realistic.

But, who am I to be churlish? You were all great and gave me a great night's entertainment seeing one of my favourite and rare musicals and I thank you. You made me cry as well, damn you! I hope to see some of you in the West End in the near future - well done people and good luck for the future!


Mick Phillips said...

A very good review Owen but I thought that I'd remind you that this was a school production. The only reason I felt I had to mention this is because you mention that there were no older people or black actors (apart from Faith Alabi). The cast are all students in a particular class which didn't have any older people or black male actors on the course. The show you are comparing this one to was a professional production which could cast anyone they liked for the roles. With the restricted pool of actors to cast the show from they had to adapt, e.g. White Jimmys.

Owen said...

And a very fair comment but I do start the blog by saying it's performed by students so take that as read.