'Hotel' review or 'Do you think we'll get a refund?'

Hotel, Polly Stenham
The Shed, 5th June 2014

It’s hard to know where to start with this one. There are certainly lots of slaps and shocks in Polly Stenham’s new play ‘Hotel’. We’ve come to expect this from Stenham, who kick-started her career with the explosive family drama ‘That Face’. There’s also a lot of danger, a lot of shouting, a lot of cruelty and quite a lot of fire in Maria Aberg’s defiant production. But the biggest shock of all is just how shaky – how fundamentally flawed – this new play is.

There are two plays nestling in ‘Hotel’ and neither one is very good. The first half seems to be gearing up towards an ugly family drama. A middle class British family are on holiday in a posh, gleaming white hotel on a remote Kenyan island. The family has retreated here, following tabloid revelations about husband Robert’s seedy affair with an online lover. Robert’s politician wife, Vivienne, has quit her job and their two children Ralph and Frankie are very upset and very drunk.

The opening act is mightily stiff but some crackling and believable family dynamics emerge. The best relationship by far is that between beautiful brother Ralph (Tom Rhys Harries) and his younger sister Frankie (Shannon Tarbet). Their conversation is hard-edged but affectionate and their impromptu dance routine reminds us just how young these wannabe grown-ups really are. Shannon Tarbet is, as always, the liveliest and most enjoyably unpredictable presence on stage. But even Tarbet hits her dialogue too hard, almost shouting at moments. All the actors over-work the script, pushing too hard in an effort to firm up their shaky roles.  

A surprising plot twist then emerges about the real nature of Robert’s affair. Frankly – as with lots of the twists in this play – it’s hard to swallow. So too is the reaction of Robert (Tom Beard) who flips from caring father to roaring bear in an instant. The relationship between the parents and children never quite comes off. At one point, Robert brushes his fourteen year old daughter’s hair, as she sits on his lap. It looks weird and wrong – and not in a creepy way but just a wildly unrealistic one.

There are lots of strange moments, which unbalance an already shaky production. Maria Aberg has done a curiously dodgy directing job which is odd considering her brilliant past form. The family spends a lot of time undressing in the living room and it’s hard to know why. What’s wrong with their bedrooms? In a particularly unbelievable moment, Frankie creeps back into the hotel and climbs up some shelves, without her brother or dad noticing. Again, unnecessary and unconvincing.

These inconsistencies only deepen when the play gets a second wind and the family find themselves in a dangerous hostage situation. Admittedly, these scenes are frightening. But all that danger feels largely like a distraction and the important stuff – dialogue, character and plotting – is still poor.

Susan Wokoma’s is landed a particularly odd role, as the Kenyan kidnapper – Nala - who has also spent a lot of time in London. It’s hard to work out who she is or where her motivation lies. Nala is outraged with the British politicians who she believes provide aid, with precious thought about the long-term consequences. But Nala’s anger is so stiff and formal and her speech is seriously strange, peppered with self-conscious imagery and jarring meta-theatrical moments. She talks about the ‘rainbow hell’ flames of her childhood and screams at her captives: ‘Your reality here is just a stage set!’

There’s passion here and some fierce characters and important ideas about the deeply compromised impact of Western aid in African nations that could – and should – be properly developed. But this play is lost at sea. At one particularly clunky moment, Nala stares angrily at the audience and cries out: ‘People like to watch hell – don’t they?’ Not really, Nala. Not really. 


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