Ever since Garbo leaned against the door-jamb of her luxury suite and murmured ‘I want to be alone’, the glamour and intrigue of Grand Hotels has captured public imagination. In Liverpool, the landmark Adelphi Hotel had its profile boosted by carriage trade from the ocean liners arriving from the New World and statesmen, gangsters and Hollywood stars all passed through its revolving doors.
Against this background, writer and director Phil Wilmott plays out an affecting love story between hotel employees, complicated by a timewarp between 1930 and the present day and affording opportunities for contemporary musical theatre songs as well as dynamic big-band numbers and choregraphy that sets the stage alight every time with the second-act opener ‘Thompson From Accounts' being particularly inventive.
Once Upon A Time had a successful debut at the Liverpool Playhouse during the city’s term as European Capital of Culture, and whilst this production makes use of every inch of the tiny Union Theatre’s stage, it would be enriched by a bigger budget for set and orchestra to put over the lavish décor and thirties big band sound.
But that’s not to detract from what is a sensational chamber production - there are no weak links in the ensemble, every one of whom sings (unmiked) and dances up a storm - but the star of the show really is Andrew Wright’s brilliantly executed choreography, eclipsing anything recently on the London fringe.
In the lead, John-Paul Hevey plays Thompson as a loveable scally and although it’s a bit of a stock character he gives it credibility and warmth particularly in the nostalgic ballad about Liverpool which brings the show to its romantic climax, and when there was scarcely a dry eye in the place.
You couldn’t say the same for that ‘other’ Adelphi - the theatre in the Strand, currently showing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s turgid sequel to Phantom where £6 million investment doesn’t tug at your heartstrings half as much.
Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi continues at the Union Theatre 204 Union Street, London SE1 (2 minutes from Southwark underground) until 27 March, with performances Tuesday-Saturday at 7.30pm and Sunday matinees at 3.30pm. Tickets £12.50-£17.50. Box office 0844 477 1000 or visit www.ticketweb.co.uk