It’s hard to tell from the descriptions on the National Theater website whether or not you’re going to enjoy a show. Check out this blurb for Hotel:
A tropical thriller, where nothing is quite what it seems, Hotel explores the cost of integrity.
Well, just what does that mean, right? It sounds like a prequel to the horrible kind of drivel Michael Billington gets so excited about, the plays that “ask important questions.” Bah! I can appreciate that playwrights are concerned about the world they live in, but too many times this leads to plays that wind up lecturing rather than creating good theater. I want a play to aim to succeed on the stage first rather than valuing its ability to be a political platform: this requires well written dialogue and a focus on human relationships over speechifying. If I wanted to be speeched at, I’d go to church or a political rally. A playwright breaks his contract with us, the audience, when he takes advantage of us being trapped in our seats to try to enlighten us. And this makes me angry.
Fortunately, Polly Stenham is reading from the same invisible contract I am – but to tell you about it, I’ll have to be careful to follow the rules I have agreed with you, my imaginary reader, and not ruin the experience by telling you too much about the show. I might do a spoiler filled analysis later, but we have an agreement, you and I, that I tell you if you might enjoy a show (and explain why), but I don’t tell you so much that it takes away the fun of the evening. I highly value going to a show and being surprised – it’s why I don’t read scripts and why I won’t read reviews in advance of seeing a play.
What I loved about Polly Stenham’s Hotel is not just its position 100% on the knife edge of the modern world – a world in which a micro scandal ruins a political career, a world in which the terror of social media sends people to court and to their deaths. What I loved was its white-knuckled clench in the guts of how families tick. I can’t tell you how perfect the relationship between teenager Ralph (Tom Rhys Harries) and his younger sister Frankie (Shannon Tarbet) was – the details of them teasing each other, fighting with each other, and standing up for each other left me truly moved. I was completely bought into their genuine existence as siblings (despite the fact Harries was just too yumalicious to possible be seen as anyone’s brother).
Stenham handles less believably the conflict between husband and wife Robert (Tom Beard) and Vivienne (Hermione Gulliford). That doesn’t mean that both of them don’t get a chance to be excellent later, but this area of interaction seems more clunky. But Robert’s relationship with both of his kids is just right, and a scene in which he berates Ralph in a moment of pure fury had me on the edge of my chair, it seemed so close to ending in violence.
Where the play goes, now, that I’ll just not say (it all reminded me a bit of the ending of Don Giovanni in terms of unexpectedness). It’s a wild ninety minutes that ends, to me, at just the right place, with all of the questions left dangling in front of us. I’ll underprepare you a bit with this quote: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” But do make sure to get in that car.
Spoiler alert: this play is not for the squeamish. And take the 15+ guidance seriously.
(This review is for a preview performance that took lace on Wednesday, June fourth. It closes on June 26th.)