“The Grand Old Opera House Hotel”, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Traverse Theatre – Traverse 1
10:00, 13:00, 16:00, 19:00, 22:00
Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes
To 27 August (not 21st)

Maggie Rose in Edinburgh
16 August 2023


Isobel McArthur’s The Grand Old Opera House Hotel is an innovative mix of opera, farce, melodrama, comedy and tales of the supernatural. Onstage, as the play opens, there are seven anonymous doors suggesting a hotel corridor. The author’s fertile brain has entertained us recently with gag-intense pieces inspired by Jane Austen and Robert Louis Stevenson. 

Here, characters start appearing through the doors: a young man, Aaron, who nervously confides in us that he has never worked in a hotel before; Amy, a young cleaner, mop in hand, sings a Verde aria, after which she quickly disappears through one of the doors; a middle-aged hotel worker, Morag, sneaking a cigarette, sets off the fire alarm. Aaron is instantly transfixed by Amy’s singing and goes on a quest to find her.  

The corridor is soon replaced by another set, an equally characterless hotel bedroom. Here a training session for new recruits, led by a stern matron-like figure, is underway, her instructions satirically sending up the pretentious jargon of such courses. 

This and other encounters between staff and guests at the hotel, amusingly called ‘scomodo’ (‘uncomfortable’ in Italian), are interrupted by the ever-increasing presence of the cleaner-cum-opera singer. It transpires that the hotel, which was previously an opera house, has been haunted since a fire destroyed the building and burnt to death the opera singers who were performing that night. 

McArthur skillfully and gradually introduces the supernatural into the everyday; our first glimpse of the beautifully costumed opera singers is through the window of the hotel room whose unexpected appearance makes Aaron think he is hallucinating while his colleagues believe he is going mad. 

The cast of seven actors boldly face the challenge of playing multiple roles. Morag, for example, with notable versatility, interprets a Hotel Worker, a Stressed Guest, Middle Aged Woman, Sombrero Drinker, Fascinator Woman. The set by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita on three levels is graduated in tints of light brown. 

In a final scene, which reminded me of nineteenth-century melodrama, serial-smoker Morag sets light to the hotel, vividly conjured up by dazzling sound and lighting effects while the hotel employees and guests begin to sing their lines about the drama of what is happening, to operatic lyrics. The piece concludes by Aaron finding his muse, Amy, and singing a final operatic duo with her in Italian.  

The script and cast are first-rate, and the play is superbly directed by Gareth Nicholls, in collaboration with composer and musical supervisor, Michael John McCarthy. Co-produced by Traverse and Dundee Rep, the play is part of the Made in Scotland Showcase.