The Grand Old Opera House Hotel

Isobel McArthur
Traverse Theatre Company with Dundee Rep Theatre
Dundee Rep Theatre

Listing details and ticket info...

The Grand Old Opera House Hotel

There's something about the empty and lifeless air in a hotel that breeds a certain type of haunted quality. The liminality of these transitional abodes, and the identical, seemingly endless corridors lend themselves deeply a sense of uncanny and often unquiet dread. It's also a space that equally opens itself up to mockery, as almost every facet of human life, in all it's oddity can be found in a busy hotel.

Isobel McArthur's Fringe First Award winning new play, The Grand Old Opera House Hotel, certainly delves into both aspects in this semi-musical farce, set in the depths of a poorly run Edinburgh hotel.

The play follows Aaron (Ali Watt), a day one new-start at the Hotel, lost in its seemingly endless identikit corridors, and imprisoned within the long working hours, endless monotony and daily changes of sleeping arrangements which are driving him to insomnia. Only a chance, and confused, encounter with Amy (Karen Fishwick), a music-loving colleague, opens up the world of operatic beauty to him, as well as opening his eyes to the tragic history of the hotel's former guise; a burnt-down opera house.

The brilliance of the play is in part the genuinely witty and hilariously funny writing and great direction from Gareth Nicholls combined with excellent performances all round by the cast. But more than that, it's largely from the staging and Ana Inés Jabares-Pita's sets being an inspired piece of deceptive simplicity: a single concertina hotel corridor, which can part to show a drab but realistically sterile and dull hotel room. It's through the conceit of this flat, uniform homogeneity that the monotony and maddening unreality of the place really hits home. Only the ever-changing digital door numbers tell one from another, the vastness of the building seeming oppressive throughout.

But the meat and bones of the play is the romantically charged game of cat and mouse, as Aaron and Amy fall more and more in love, despite never actually meeting face to face, instead, merely hearing each other's voices, or in Aaron's case, listening to an operatic mix-tape Amy left behind in one of the rooms. It's here that things take on a more otherworldly spin, with the appearance of operatic apparitions, who peer cheerfully out from windows and doorways whenever Aaron loses himself in the music.

It's here where much of the plot arises, and it's also where the play slightly falters, mainly due to the rather thin characterisations all round. Now of course, this is a farce, so it's not expected that every character has a deep backstory, and the cast fill in a lot of the gaps through sheer charismatic charm and the commitment to the hijinks. Still, it does feel a little odd at times that no-one here has an ounce of a life outside the Hotel, and seemingly lives their entire existence within the walls of the building quite happily. There's certainly commentary made throughout the play about the drone-like existence and near-enslavement of the staff, but at some points through the mid-section, it all starts to feel a tad contrived.

It's rather good, then, that the piece screws itself quite firmly throughout the build-up to the finale, not only by pinning the motives and actions of everyone involved more firmly, but also by committing itself into musical territory, borrowing and stealing famous sections of opera and then belting out accompanying parodical lyrics through stretches of the latter scenes. It's absolutely a highlight, and worth a slightly unfocused and meandering mid-section to get there.

It's a solidly entertaining play all round, one that has already won accolades at the Festival Fringe, and could well become a welcomed favourite for years to come.

Reviewer: Graeme Strachan

Are you sure?