No sooner does a bad-taste but feelgood musical arrive in the West End that touches on unpleasantness in Germany – The Producers – than a relentlessly grim but impressive one set in inter-war Berlin follows hard on its heels. Robert Wright and George Forrest’s 1989 musical is set in 1928, in the city’s Grand Hotel(!), with as many different kinds of sorrow as there are guests. All, but I mean all human life is here.
The 1932 all-star movie of Vicki Baum’s novel was perhaps the first big film to weave together a number of individuals’ stories, in a way that disaster movies would later make annoyingly familiar. The stage show does the same. There’s the ageing ballerina, the penniless baron, the too-honest businessman, the ambitious typist, the dying nobody... They all touch each other’s lives amid the swanky hotel’s opulent décor.
There’s only one big star here, though: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, playing dancer Grushinskaya (the Garbo part). No-one doubted for a moment that Hollywood face Mastrantonio would have the stage acting chops for such a show in an intimate space like the Donmar. What’s impressive is that she can also handle the pointe business of her dance routines, and moreover makes a powerful chanteuse on the number "Bonjour Amour".
It’s really an ensemble piece, with the action whirling throughout the 100 interval-less minutes so that no actor gets more than a couple of minutes at a time to themselves before it moves on. Midway through, I noticed a discreet smoke machine up in the roof, pumping out not billowing clouds but just enough mist to make things seem unreal. With Samantha Fellows’ huge mural, it all has a slightly Expressionist air.
The writers are admirably determined not to let us off with falsely happy endings. The little optimism that’s there is only to make things bearable. That might sound as if the evening’s one massive downer, but it’s that odd, enjoyable kind of gloom: you feel better about your life because there’s always someone worse off in the hotel. Once again, the Donmar has triumphed with an intimately staged musical.
Written for Teletext.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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