The Grand Old Opera House Hotel review – head-spinning operatic comedy | Edinburgh festival 2023

Early in Isobel McArthur’s head-spinning new comedy, there is a gag about the uniformity of hotel decor. The joke is plain to see. Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s inspired three-level set, as wide as it is tall, has a colour palette that extends all the way from fawn to beige. To move from one bedroom to another they simply have to change the number on the wall. Everything is identical.

“Designs like this, which court the aesthetically unspecific, risk offending no one,” pipes up one of the room attendants.

The remark comes in the midst of a load of funny stuff about badly treated hospitality staff and eccentric guests, so it is not immediately obvious that this is what McArthur’s play is about. But strip away the bland interiors of this rebranded Scomodo hotel and you will find a disused opera house. With every flicker of the lights and ghostly rumble in the walls, it is as if the previous building is trying to get out. Old-fashioned character, passion and quirkiness are attempting to assert themselves over soulless modernity.

And what could have more character, passion and quirkiness than opera? Brilliantly, McArthur fashions a story of melodramatic intensity as two would-be lovers pursue each other from floor to anonymous floor, in and out of more doors than Bluebeard’s Castle, in a plot that is gloriously all heart and little head. Just like an opera.

The closer they get together – Ali Watt’s new boy Aaron and Karen Fishwick’s Wagner-loving Amy (both excellent) – the more the bedroom farce becomes an opera. In Gareth Nicholls’s beautifully timed production, Michael John McCarthy’s score moves centre stage, the arias come sweeping in and wild, romantic gestures take the place of minor domestic gripes from the pernickety guests. With passions and building aflame, the girl gets the boy.

In her hit show Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) and her follow-up version of Kidnapped, McArthur has proved herself adept at jokey musical adaptations of the classics. Here, in a co-production between the Traverse and Dundee Rep, she takes a bold step forward with an idiosyncratic romp as formally adventurous as it is extravagantly funny.

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