“It’s the same old colonial shit, just dressed in the shiny drag of free market capitalism”
Though Polly Stenham has been definitively anointed the next big thing by any number of feature writers, her repeated brand of “posh dysfunction” (I’m borrowing this from someone but I forget exactly who) has never really got my pulse racing. So when Hotel, her play for the National Theatre’s formerly-The-Shed-but-now-called-The-Temporary-Space-I-think, opens with two precocious teenagers and two bourgeois parents all suffering from the malaise of being that only a holiday to a luxurious African island resort can cure, my heart did verily sink.
Mother Vivienne has just had to resign from the cabinet due to a sex scandal that has engulfed her stay-at-home husband Robert whilst kids Ralph and Frankie look on bemusedly although not without some deeper connection as it turns out. But as we settle down for (yet another) family drama, Stenham pulls out the rug from us (and them) with a massive tonal shift which throws everyone off-balance, so much so that I’m not sure we ever regain a satisfactory equilibrium between the two very different parts of the play.
The move into eco-terrorism is unexpected but in its twists and turns, it never really quite convinces. Native chambermaids turn out to be South London activists who are lumbered with the most awkward kind of speechifying that ranges from the evils of imperialism to anger at the aid deals that Vivienne’s administration forced upon this part of the world. It’s important stuff but it never ever feels like natural dialogue, we’re just being lectured at which is never a good thing. Plus Stenham feels a need to continue being labyrinthine which overdoes the twistiness.
Maria Aberg’s production looks great in Naomi Dawson’s compact design, making the bursts of energy really pop in the small space, and she encourages strong performances from the cast, particularly the holidaymakers Hermione Gulliford and Tom Beard, Shannon Tarbet and Tom Rhys Harries. But the writing just doesn’t feel strong enough to fulfil the premise it has set up for itself, becoming almost a flight of fancy despite the deathly seriousness of much that it has raised.