Review: Grand Hotel, Southwark Playhouse

“Come begin in old Berlin”

Finally, a traverse staging that feels properly justified. It’s still highly dependent on where you sit – despite being a little late, I was able to secure a great vantage point from the middle of the back row from where the full length of the stage for Grand Hotel was suitably visible and I was glad for it. Thom Southerland’s musicals at the Southwark Playhouse have become something of an annual fixture now, becoming big hits for them (Parade) even if they haven’t always floated my boat (Titanic…).

Based on Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, the book by Luther Davis swirls around the residents of this Berlin establishment in 1928 over one fateful weekend. A grande dame of a faded ballerina, a typist dreaming of Hollywood, an aristocrat who has lost his fortune, a businessman facing ruin, a man who has little time left to live, their stories and more intertwine elegantly and fluidly in a constantly moving state of flux which captures some of the unpredictability and increasing darkness of interwar Germany. Continue reading “Review: Grand Hotel, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: The Grand Tour, Finborough Theatre

“I think, I think…”

Jerry Herman’s The Grand Tour flopped on Broadway which explains a little of why it has taken 36 years for it to make its premiere in Europe. Another reason is the strange tone of Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book, based on a play by SN Behrman, which plots an odd couple roadtrip and ensuing love triangle against the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. Polish compatriots Jewish intellectual SL Jacobowsky and Catholic aristocrat Colonel Stjerbinsky reluctantly join forces in Paris to make their escape, picking up the Colonel’s French lover Marianne on the way, and ending up in all sorts of jolly japes and adventures which are more Boy’s Own than Wilfred Owen.

Director Thom Southerland has great form with musical revivals though and aspects of his work here are superb. Phil Lindley’s approach to designing this show should be studied by all aspiring designers as an inspired way of dealing with the intimacy of a space such as the Finborough. His European map-featuring set unfolds multipally like the pages of a pop-up book to take us from the front seat of a car to the heights of a high-wire, the stillness of a church and the bracing winds of a harbour amongst many other locations, and it does so with real elegance. I’d only question why Belgium appears to have been erased from the map and given how much Saint-Nazaire is referred to in the show, whether that might have been added too. Continue reading “Review: The Grand Tour, Finborough Theatre”

Review: Dogfight, Southwark Playhouse

“Lock your door and hide your daughter”

After the extraordinary success that was In The Heights, the Southwark Playhouse have gone for another American musical theatre import in the shape of 2012’s Dogfight. But whilst expectations were high – something heightened by the auditorium being in the same configuration as for that previous show, the reality fell far short. Peter Duchan’s book, based on the 1991 film of the same name, follows a group of boisterous marines in San Francisco on the night before they’re due to fly out to Vietnam as they look to maintain the (dis)honourable tradition of holding a dogfight.

As we come to realise, their version of a dogfight is distinctly unpleasant, a cruel game played on unsuspecting women and though he is a part of this world of pent-up testosterone and hints of sexual violence, the young Eddie Birdlace soon comes to regret his choice of victim – a sweet waitress called Rose – and tries to make amends, though whether this is because he has fallen instantly in love with her or he has spotted an easy way to get laid on his last night is anyone’s guess. So what is trying to be a sweet love story is overlaid with this troubling sour note throughout. Continue reading “Review: Dogfight, Southwark Playhouse”

Film Review: Les Misérables

“Life has dropped you at the bottom of the heap”

For many people, myself included, it is nigh on impossible to approach a film version of stage behemoth Les Misérables with a blank slate. It’s been a mainstay of the musical theatre world since its 1985 London debut – it is most likely the show I have seen the most times throughout my lifetime – and after celebrating its 25th anniversary with an extraordinarily good touring production, has been riding high with a revitalised energy. So Tom Hooper’s film has a lot to contend with in terms of preconceptions, expectations and long-ingrained ideas of how it should be done. And he has attacked it with gusto, aiming to reinvent notions of cinematic musicals by having his actors sing live to camera and bringing his inimitable close-up directorial style to bear thus creating a film which is epic in scale but largely intimate in focus.

In short, I liked it but I didn’t love it. I’m not so sure that Hooper’s take on the piece as a whole is entirely suited to the material, or rather my idea of how best it works. Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score has a sweeping grandeur which is already quasi-cinematic in its scope but Hooper never really embraces it fully as he works in his customary solo shots and close-ups into the numbers so well known as ensemble masterpieces.  ‘At The End Of The Day’ and ‘One Day More’ both suffer this fate of being presented as individually sung segments stitched together but for me, the pieces never really added up to more than the sum of their parts to gain the substantial power that they possess on the stage. Continue reading “Film Review: Les Misérables”

Review: Parade, Southwark Playhouse

“It means the journey ahead might get shorter, I might reach the end of my rope”

Hardly the sunniest of topics for a musical, Jason Robert Brown’s Parade is based on the true 1910s story of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman who is accused of the rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a 13 year old employee in his factory. How the trial unfolds in Atlanta, Georgia and its impact ripples out, characterises a Deep South rife with virulent anti-Semitism, whipped up by a sensationalist media and fomented by opportunistic politicians and Leo, with his wife Lucille, are swept along with the inescapable tide. This new production is presented in the Vault at Southwark Playhouse, a dark spare space of shadowy arches and echoing sound.

It is a beautifully complex score – one which would reward repeated listening I imagine – pulling in influences from a diverse range of sources, evoking emotion well but more crucially constantly pushing the story forward. Because if there’s a weakness it is that the central premise is fairly limited, the same points are made repeatedly in lieu of much by the way of actual drama. But directed by Thom Southerland, the show really sparkles when it centres on the marriage between Brooklynite Leo and Southern gal Lucille, his bookish dullness captured well by Alistair Brookshaw and contrasted by the openness of Laura Pitt-Pulford’s stunningly-voiced wife whose relentless drive to clear his name wakens a new, deeper love between the two. Continue reading “Review: Parade, Southwark Playhouse”