directed by Maria Aberg
If the Telegraph travel supplement got into a fight with a Guardian exposé, the result might look a little like Hotel – fun enough to watch the ink fly, but ultimately an unwieldy encounter between mismatched type. The element of surprise is firmly on playwright Polly Stenham’s side as we settle in for what appears to be another barb-tongued bourgeois brouhaha in the vein of That Face. The nuclear family is set up for meltdown nicely enough: a husband’s cyber-indiscretion has seen his wife’s resignation from government, and the whole family have exchanged the flash of press bulbs for an increasingly awkward real-life ‘desert island experience.’ Fans chopping menacingly above, Naomi Dawson’s pristine set neatly resembles the lush interior of a jewellery box designed for a blood diamond, while David Holmes’ luxurious tropical lighting cleverly transforms an upper window-cum-hidey-hole into crystal clear waters for the play’s prologue. Here son and daughter, ably portrayed by Tom Rhys Harries’ plummy hero Ralph and Shannon Tarbet’s darkly inscrutable Frankie, place a swimming bet that hooks our interest like a fat Kenyan Barracuda: “If I win, you tell him.” “And if I win?” “I’ll let it go.”
A pleasing twist on the father’s scandal keeps the action threshing along as the children dissect their parents over stolen vodka and a new maid traipses in and out with those iconic all-inclusive towel-swans. But then an abrupt telescopic retraction takes in a much wider world of politics, and the tension dissipates with the focus. With the introduction of Susan Wokoma’s sturdy, nervy Nala the production takes on a bleaker and more blatantly didactic light, eventually leaving the audience in the gallery reaching for the tissues – though not for the reason you might think. Nala’s agenda of vengeance may be terrifyingly executed – and there is a lovely split-second of hesitation from Wokoma when she realises her golden goose is no longer laying, politically speaking – but the indisputable force of her fact-flinging creates something of a theatrical dead weight. Our sympathies are not anchored to Hermione Gulliford’s embittered Vivienne or Tom Beard’s doggedly apologetic Robert enough to keep the thriller thrilling, and this sunset cruise of a drama capsizes. Even the turnaround ending, dynamically reducing the 5-star setting into a besieged slum, isn’t enough to satisfactorily redress the imbalance and leaves the play, at just under an hour and a half, feeling strangely incomplete.
The writing, for the most part, is lent some crackling subtext by a good company of actors, solidly directed by Maria Aberg. Every now and then the light wit of the text sticks on over-emphasis or odd moments of tart but incongruous poetry. Yet the action is well orchestrated, with fight and movement choreographer Kate Waters creating a knuckle-whitening moment which will have some reconsidering room service on their next package holiday.
The afore-mentioned eye-watering as the curtain falls seems an unfortunate oversight of audience management, but perhaps given the nature of the play – Swiss Family Robinson meets Captain Phillips – this is the very poke in the eye for lackadaisical theatre-goers that Stenham intended.
photo | ©Kwame Lestrade