Sunday 20 July 2014

Hotel @ The National Theatre

There's trouble in paradise.

Except this paradise is an all-white, clinical hotel room in Kenya - in total contrast to the idyllic ocean seascape just outside the door.  It forms the backdrop to what begins as a drama about a dysfunctional middle class family, typical of playwright Polly Stenham's style.

It's the children who hold the power here: the handsome, rebellious Ralph (Tom Rhys Harries) and his somewhat manipulative sister Frankie (Shannon Tarbet).  The play begins with them conspiring, a secret on the brink of being revealed, before they playfully joke about alcohol and dance to Destiny's Child.  Their inadequate parents have their own issues: Vivienne (Hermione Gulliford) has lost her government job after sexual images of husband Robert (Tom Beard) were leaked online.  Yet after a shocking revelation of Freudian proportions, it's clear that the teenagers aren't as innocent as they seem.

It sets up an interesting narrative of a broken family with deep psychological issues - in particular the relationship between father and son - but these are never explored.  The play suddenly takes a dramatic and savage turn with the entrance of chambermaid Nala (a frighteningly calm Susan Wokoma), steering the narrative away from its beginnings and headfirst into colonialism, aid and Somali pirates.  A fair amount of explanation is required that slows the pace, before the action quickly becomes violent and harrowing, the pure white set thoroughly destroyed.  Throughout, Hotel is never less than gripping.

Yet it's as if Stenham got bored halfway through writing her family drama (or purposefully wanted to disrupt her own formula) and tacked on an entirely new play.  Perhaps this is to diminish the first world problems of this family, positioning their troubles within a much wider context to reflect the sudden and shocking damage that terrorism causes, but it brings with it an overly jarring change of tone.  Plot threads are left frustratingly unanswered (especially from the opening scenes) and as a whole the play lacks a satisfying conclusion.  As essentially two plays in one, the first proves to be the more intriguing yet underdeveloped.

Amongst excellent performances, Rhys Harries particularly stands out.  His Ralph is a surprisingly mature teenager on the brink of adulthood - the only character to undergo any real development in a play that can certainly be read as an exploration of the loss of innocence.


Watch: Hotel is performed at the Temporary Theatre at the National Theatre.