Queen of the first-world problem, playwright Polly Stenham has been chronicling the familial woes of the upper-middle classes ever since she burst on the scene in a blaze of glory aged 19.
‘Hotel’, her fourth play and first for the NT, begins extremely Stenham-ishly. On a luxury Kenyan holiday resort, a pair of ludicrously precocious teen siblings, Ralph (Tom Rhys Harries) and Frankie (Shannon Tarbet), are being ludicrously precocious: smoking, drinking, talking in peculiar RP accents, referring to their feuding parents by their first names, and alluding to A Big Secret. Next we encounter said parents: Vivienne (Hermione Gulliford) is an MP who has just lost her cabinet job after hubbie Robert (Tom Beard) disgraced himself by showing his cock to some hot young thing on the internet.
It’s familiar territory, but Stenham does the agonising uncertainty of a family that may or may not collapse incredibly well – Gulliford is particularly good as a woman suspended somewhere between fury, exasperation and sympathy for her husband.
Then the Big Secret is revealed and it’s, er, quite a lurid one. Only it turns out that Stenham has been fucking with us, because the reveal is actually a total red herring, as the play suddenly and abruptly changes gear into a sort of posh version of Sarah Kane’s ‘Blasted’.
I won’t give too much away, but where Kane’s landmark play was about the possibility that sectarian strife could enter our domestic lives at any time, ‘Hotel’ adopts a similar structure to riff unconvincingly on globalism. It is clear that the dangerously self-absorbed family have disregarded their surroundings to their peril – both on this holiday and as it turns out, beforehand – but I just could not get on board with Stenham choosing to manifest this in Susan Wokoma’s preposterous nemesis figure.
Some of the twists are so outrageous that I can’t help but think that Stenham intended to write more of a black comedy than Maria Aberg’s po-faced production allows, though I’m sure some people will find the tumultuous second half genuinely thrilling. Nonetheless, by the time ‘Hotel’ had descended into borderline torture porn, I’d pretty much checked out.
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I just want to ask your reviewer what he means by "peculiar RP accents"? Has everybody got to use some sort of "regional" or "street" accent to be credible as characters? There is surely no shame in using a "Standard English" accent? After all, it helps with communication. As for what is said about the play, I fully agree. I imagine that Ms Stenham will write better plays than this melodrama. As for the overuse of the "f-word", how long will it be before writers decide it might be more effective to ration their use of this once-shocking word and its variants?