“The most powerful people in the world have sex in hotels. In fact, having sex in the best hotels makes you powerful. It doesn’t matter how good the sex is, only how good the hotel is.”
Last year saw Defibrillator Theatre take over three rooms in The Langham Hotel, down the posh end of Regent Street, to present the short Tennessee Williams plays that made up The Hotel Plays and given its resounding success, they’ve gone back there again this year to occupy three more spaces. With 380 rooms in this self-titled “first Grand Hotel in Europe”, it will only take another 125 years to work through all of them at this rate… This year though, Defibrillator have come armed with an original piece – The Armour – written by Ben Ellis and especially commissioned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of The Langham itself.
Stretching from the late nineteenth century to the present day, the three duologues each take place at a key moment in the building’s history and make for a beguiling combination. First off is a nod to the hotel’s revitalised presence as a luxury venue as Hannah Spearritt’s pop star Jade suffers a minor meltdown in the middle of a crucial comeback concert tour. Trying to calm her down in this basement suite is manager Franky, a nicely lived-in Thomas Craig, who tolerantly indulges her complaints about the trappings of fame but also can’t disguise the note of genuine fatherly concern for a young woman whose life has long not been her own to control.
Following that is an elevator ride to the third floor and a trip back to 1973 to a time when the building was not actually a hotel but rather occupied by the BBC. Here, Americans Peter and Eloise, Simon Darwen and Siubhan Harrison, prepare for a radio interview about their shipping business but find themselves still dealing with the aftershocks of his Vietnam experiences. And finally, we ascend to the seventh floor and 1871 where the ever-patient Eugénie tends to the needs of the irascible Charles, who just happens to be the recently exiled Louis-Napoléon III, as they both reminisce about the wonder of the lives they’ve had to leave behind and dream idly of a future that is horribly uncertain for them.
Darwen and Harrison deliver the unpredictable twists of their relationship excellently in the most intriguingly written of the pieces but for me, Finty Williams and Sean Murray won the day in the final segment, occurring at a point just before electricity has been introduced to the hotel and allowing a wry sense of humour to embody their entire situation. James Turner’s design stands out best in these earlier sections – the period recording studio smacks of 70s authenticity and there’s real elegance in the evocation of faded imperial grandeur – and I loved Holly Rose Henshaw’s costumes for all three, all withstanding the close scrutiny allowed in these intimate surroundings.
The cumulative effect thus becomes one that is rather enchanting. Personally, I could have done without the late flourish of a connective twist which felt a little forced and not entirely necessary in the end – the subtleties of James Hillier’s production are enough in their own right. I could see how some might find it a little insubstantial but Ellis’ miniature examinations of different crumbling empires feels well-suited to this genuinely site-specific production.