Years ago, they might have called this a happening; today, it’s a pop-up immersive experience. Set aside the conceit that the Grand Eagle Hotel is hosting its 1927 ball, and the luminous singer-songwriter Laura Marling is playing a very fancy fancy-dress party. And what a swell party it was.
The first musical soirée by event organisers Secret Cinema, it runs for most of the second half of June. About 300 people a night are welcomed by manager “Thomas Undine” and his uniformed staff and shown to their “rooms”. Many of them had followed instructions to bring, inter alia, unwanted books, a gift for a stranger and flowers for “Mistress Josephine”. I spent much of the day wondering how “vintage black tie” would go on the bus to deepest Hackney. (Just fine, actually.)
Early reviews, evidently unfamiliar with the promenade theatre of companies such as Punchdrunk, gushed their enthusiasm. Certainly, the location – a neo-gothic pile complete with croquet lawn and chapel – was one of the best I’ve seen for this type of work. The detailing was impressive, too, though I didn’t pick up so many links to Marling’s latest album, Once I Was an Eagle, apart from the obvious. I gave “Lord Cardew” the note pressed upon me by a maid, even if her spelling (deliberately?) left a lot to be desired. But much in the way of a narrative passed me by as actors moved among the paying guests.
Soon after diners at the Moro-operated restaurant had finished their roast quail, Marling appeared in the vaulted gallery, accompanied by Eddie Berman on guitar. The light hugged her floor-length white gown as they offered a plaintive, almost maudlin take on Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”. Mobile phones having been confiscated at the door, it was a moment for fans to commit to memory. Like the rest of the evening’s preamble, it should have been more than enough to engage their imaginations. We were ushered into a modern annexe for the concert proper. It had little of the main building’s opulence, but then Marling – a young person with an old soul, looking so pure yet singing songs so labyrinthinely in love – embodies contrasts.
She opened with the initial suite from Eagle, backed by cello, acoustic guitar and double bass. The rest of the gig was solo. Her tone had shades of both Karen Carpenter and Leonard Cohen. Not for the first time I was struck that she soliloquises as much as sings. The fast, staccato blues of “Master Hunter” elided with ruminative, classical-guitar strains on “Little Love Caster”. The final irony was to hear an artist with more articulacy than most of her peers deliver the line “My love is better dumb”. A captivating performer in any decade.