Grand Hotel at the Southwark Playhouse: somebody check us out of here

Saturday 1st August 2015, matinée

Seeing Maury Yeston’s name on the advert for Grand Hotel, the latest production at the Southwark Playhouse, piqued our interest, even though in this case he was providing additional music and lyrics to supplement George Forrest and Robert Wright’s original score.  We booked our tickets and looked forward to finding out why this show won five Tony awards when it premiered on Broadway.

This was meant to be a review of that show, but as it’s going to be almost impossible to give the show and cast a fair account, we’ll just have to try to explain what happened.

How is it possible, we wonder, to be in the front row in a small theatre facing the stage and yet see only a fraction of the action, miss major parts of the story, and end up with severe neck strain from the constant craning in an attempt to see the whole stage at once.  Were we struck down by some kind of physical impairment?  No, the answer is traverse staging. For the uninitiated, traverse staging consists of putting all the seating on two sides in mirror image formation, with the playing area in the middle.  And if, dear reader, you are growing tired of our rants about this most hubristic of seating formations, don’t blame us.  We still can’t believe directors think it is a good idea.  And here, we have to hand it to Thom Southerland for providing us with the worst example of its kind we have ever seen (or should we say almost seen).  Some past productions have provided a little relief by having small areas at either end where an audience can rest their weary eyes for a moment, but here, we have extreme traversity, with what must be the narrowest and longest strip of ‘stage’ possible.  The most frustrating aspect of the experience for us was that we felt there was something good in there trying to get out, but mostly we just felt emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted, and not in a good way.  All we have left is questions.

How can we describe it? Well, it’s a bit like the five stages of grieving, which can of course be applied in all sorts of ways. In this case grief at the sight of so much talent being wasted.

1)  Denial.  Despite arriving with plenty of time to spare, we were more or less at the end of the queue for unreserved seats, leaving us in the worst possible seats with time to ponder what was to come.  A bit like that moment when you realise you’ve left your wallet on the bus as you watch it pulling away.  Of course we tried to cheer ourselves up.  Yes, we’d seen countless failures on the altar of the traverse, but this is Thom Southerland.  He wouldn’t choose this layout without a good reason.  Perhaps the seats will magically pull back to reveal an actual stage area.  Ah well, we can dream.

2)  Anger.  It didn’t take long for the irritation to reach boiling point as we sat through what is starting to become standard issue choreography for traverse staging.  First the cast march past us from right to left; then they march backwards from left to right; then they split into two and march from each end, jostling each other like rush-hour commuters in the middle.  Then there is the wearisome sensation of disembodied singing, and the game of trying to guess which mouth it is emanating from by studying the backs of people’s heads.  And then, just as you have a clear view of an actor’s face, they are blocked by the back of someone else’s head.  And just to add insult to injury, clouds of dry ice were pumped into the theatre at inopportune moments.

3)  Bargaining.  We’re here, we really need to make the best of it.  And there are plenty of opportunities for distraction.  Playing the well-known ‘which haircut would suit me?’ game, and then there is that great so-called advantage of the traverse form – you get a great view of the audience on the other side.  We could observe the bewildering variety of awkward body posture on show as people tried to get a good view without crippling themselves.  And we could definitely see signs of people enjoying the show less than us – the fixed stare at the ceiling is a good example.

4)  Depression.  In the end it was just too much.  A procession of disembodied vocal talent and glimpses of dance ability we just couldn’t see.  Suddenly we were indulging in fond memories of that production of ‘Trojan Women’.  At one point, we were within reach of a prop gun tucked into the waistband of one of the actors and the temptation to go out in a blaze of glory was almost overwhelming.

5)  Acceptance.  We never quite got to this stage but we’re working on it.

All we can say is the whilst Southerland ruined our afternoon, we’re not sure he ruined a classic of Musical Theatre.  The book is disjointed, the characters mostly unlikeable, and a few good songs don’t really make up for this.  But we can’t help wondering what might have been.

It would be churlish not to acknowledge some of the talent on show here – this is one case where we can definitely say the cast came out fighting.  Scott Garnham gave us some thrilling vocals as feckless lover Baron von Felix von Gaigern.  Jacob Chapman, last seen by us as Pish Tush in the Mikado, graduates from slinky to sleazy as dodgy banker Hermann Presysing, taking to the dark side with genuine menace.  Victoria Serra is delightfully cheeky as shameless career-girl Flaemmchen (just Flaemmchen, like ‘Garbo’). We’d have loved to see her dancing in a space larger than a chicken-run.  Christine Grimandi is suitably imposing as ageing ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya, and Valerie Cutko, whom we have previously seen hosting cabaret at Lauderdale house, cuts a dash as her assistant and secret admirer, Raffaela, with vocals to match.

Oh, and did we mention the perverse, sorry, traverse staging?  It’s a funny thing, but we just can’t seem to see past it.

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