GRAND HOTEL – 27 NOVEMBER 2004, LONDON

Grand Hotel invites us, for a brief period, into the lives of the staff and guests of the Grand Hotel, Berlin in 1928. Amongst the guests are the aging ballerina with her faithful companion, the suave, yet broke, Baron being pursued by the gangsters to whom he owes money, the potential film starlet who seemingly will go to any lengths to get to America, the businessman on the verge of bankruptcy and the Jew seemingly on the verge of death. The staff include the cabaret Jimmys, the concierge who’s wife is dangerously close to death giving birth, the hotel manager and the receptionists of the hotel.

The look of the piece is bleak, a pre cursor to the recent ‘cabaret’ look. The women at the hotel staff with red hollow eyes, the men look tired and strained. Lack of colour only adds to the bleak outlook the characters seem to face. It may be the grandest hotel in Berlin and the public face is one of professionalism and service but the lighting has a cold element to it which indicates that you only need to scratch the surface to see the true face of the people who are there. The show is simply yet cleverly staged, a bare stage is overlooked by the back of the lit ‘Grand Hotel’ sign and minimal props are brought one but on the whole it is left to your imagination to complete the look which is easy to do as the required pointers has already been given by the ‘look’.

The whole production is effectively staged and performed. Julian Ovenden heads, what is essentially an ensemble cast, as the Baron managing to keep the dice of life in the air to avoid the gangster who is forever in his shadow. He has the ability to slide into a room, charm the women and then leave with them left in dreamland. Helen Baker’s ‘starlet’ Flaemmchen is completely taken in and within a few hours is already considering herself as Mrs ‘Baron’ only to be completely stalled, for when the Baron tries to steal the Ballerina’s (Elisaveta), necklace he falls hopefully in love with her at first sight. Julian sings a superb rendition of ‘Love can’t happen’. He has a wonderful voice and the looks to a very convincing lady’s man !. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was excellent as the aging ballerina on her 8th farewell tour, somehow needing her theatre manager to convince her to go on even though they both know it is over. She displays a fragility unaware that the person who has loyally supported her, her devoted companion Raffaela (Gillian Bevan), has loved her for years and as the love affair with the Baron comes to a tragic end Raffaela does everything to keep the truth from her beloved Elisaveta. Daniel Evans has the amazing ability to perform and create such an array of characters and is almost unrecognisable as the prematurely aged bookkeeper Otto. He has an almost shadowy existence and it is as though with life losing him he almost loses his presence as a person and is someone you would never remember having been in a room. His voice in song is like a wistful, almost hauntin,g voice amongst the characters, yet it is the voice you would remember as if it were a distant memory.

Helen Baker’s naïve Flaemmchen gets more than she finds she is capable of doing when Martyn Ellis, as the soon to be bankrupt company director, wants her to go to America with him. Otto finds his salvation and purpose in life by taking her under his wing to look after her to raise her child. Helen was very good at carrying across the young and at times silly girl who foolishly thinks her charm will get her what she wants. Martyn Ellis gave a very effective portrayal of the ever desperate company director, a man on the edge with shareholders catching his heels but he found that those worries paled into insignificance when it came to a more unexpected ending for him with murder on the cards.

The whole ensemble was excellent carrying on the many parts or their own stories within the hotels day. The ensemble singing during the main ensemble numbers is clear and precise as each character tells you about themselves at the same time yet you are able to focus on one individual within all of it and hear their story. The choreography blended with the action and fitted the style of the show well.

I enjoyed the production and considering it is performed straight through at an hour and three quarters, it never dragged and the time went by very quickly. Not having scenery to move created a fluidity in the change of scenes and the cast commanded your attention whenever they were on.

It is not a show I had listened to before so this was the first hearing and musically wise I would have to listen to the score again to fully appreciate it.

It is the show which left me with a slight sense of being unsatisfied as the characters moved on to their next leg of life’s journey. I wanted some closure on what had happened but as we were only given a brief insight into the dilemmas of their life it was only possible to get to know them on a superficial level. You don’t take a journey with the characters and you have to go on first impressions and on that they are, for the most, a group of shallow, selfish individuals who on the whole get what is coming to them. You don’t have the opportunity to empathise with them and therefore don’t feel you have made any journey with them at all. The weakness for me lies in the show structure and source material itself as opposed to this production which fits perfectly into the Donmar’s repertoire.

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