Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Theatre review: Hotel

Polly Stenham, the poet laureate of incontinence, has written a loose trilogy of plays Upstairs at the Royal Court, which have seen her prove accomplished at taking on the dysfunction of the upper middle classes; although by the third there were calls for her to broaden her horizons. She does so, not altogether successfully, with her fourth play Hotel, which also sees her move to the Artist Formerly Known As Shed outside the NT. Vivienne (Hermione Gulliford) is a Cabinet Minister - or at least she was until a couple of days ago. Her husband Robert (Tom Beard) was caught trying to pick up women online, and when the ensuing scandal made them a laughing stock, Vivienne resigned. Now, to escape the press, she's taken Robert and their children Ralph (Tom Rhys Harries) and Frankie (Shannon Tarbet) to the most remote holiday destination they could find, a small tropical island off the coast of Africa. It's the off-season, so theirs seems to be the only occupied suite in the hotel.

They may have escaped the outside world but the family's internal tensions haven't gone anywhere. It seems to be the parents who have to shoulder the blame, but as we join the story (I doubt too many people will be complaining about an opening scene of Tom Rhys Harries in wet bathing trunks) Frankie is trying to get Ralph to confess a pretty heinous secret.

But about a third of the way in Hotel takes a very abrupt, surprising turn that reveals it to have much larger concerns. With the production photos sticking to the early scenes it would seem the National are hoping to keep this twist secret, so I won't give spoilers. But I will say that whatever Stenham's new avenues might be, political playwrighting probably won't be her strength. She's found an issue that's rarely explored, a form of modern colonialism, but the way she presents it is clumsy; there's always a thumping gear change when story gives way to rhetoric.

Also, why is Vivienne going out for dinner in a surgical gown?

A second big shift in plot is even more awkwardly executed - in fact it feels as if it was the play's structure that dictated another twist, rather than the demands of the story. So a deeply problematic play, but one which Maria Aberg has managed to get a lot out of regardless. Having mainly seen her direct classics, it's interesting to see Aberg tackle a new piece, and while I might have wished she'd got more rewrites out of her playwright, what she does have she makes the best of, and some of the middle section of Hotel works itself into a pretty effective thriller, with some incredibly tense moments.

In some ways the play resolves itself into Ralph's story, a classic Stenham man-child (from any other playwright I'd take Robert's comment about Ralph still wetting the best as metaphorical, but it's Polly Stenham so you never know) and the final act is him becoming, for better or worse, a man. Even if the way he does this isn't always plausible, Rhys Harries tackles it with conviction. A case of a cast and production that are far superior to the play itself.

Hotel by Polly Stenham is booking until the 2nd of August at the National Theatre's Keith.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

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