Review: THEATRE: Hotel The Place, London

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The Independent Culture
There is something inherently haunting and haunted about hotels - those public places where people are forced in on their own loneliness and separation and where other lives are glimpsed or heard in tantalising snatches. The speculative faculty works overtime in these circumstances and it would doubtless be possible to invent a theatre piece that consisted of nothing but the muffled noises (and their implied narratives) from adjoining rooms.

"Eight Rooms", the first of the two pieces in Second Stride's Hotel, turns that idea inside out in the visual conceit of superimposing on each other eight identical hotel rooms, with the result that 14 people (a couple having an affair; a lesbian duo; a pair drunk after a party; a businessman etc) appear to be occupying the same space, supremely unaware of their cohabitees.

It looks like a surreal case of chronic overbooking, as they gradually flock in, unselfconsciously strip off and make trips to the shower room in preparation for piling on to the grossly burdened pair of beds. I think the result would have made a droller and more powerful spectacle if the set had a more boxed-in and constricted feel. That the cast manage to avoid even minor collisions in all this congested traffic, however, is a tribute to the direction of the choreographer, Ian Spink.

The keenest voyeurist might feel a little overindulged and inclined to lower his binoculars but happily, "Eight Rooms", with music by Orlando Gough and text by Caryl Churchill, is also a densely layered modern opera, scored in a way that inverts the usual proportions: ie the singers greatly outnumber the instrumentalists, two pianists and a double-bass player. The characters communicate in jagged, incomplete phrases, overlap and form unwitting duets and trios with people they never encounter, as they struggle with insomnia or with dreams or wake up in an adulterous bed panicking about their children at home.

Full of prodding, naggingly insistent rhythms, the score can also yearn towards lyricism, as in the beautiful, tranced, blues-tinged song of the female ghost who appears during the night and pleads: "Let me into your sleep... I've been dead so long / I've forgotten why / I've not gone away." This revenant spook is a bit of an anomaly, though, in a piece that pointedly sets out to tackle anti-operatic subject-matter. Going to bed and getting up the next morning, cleaning your teeth, hanging up a dress: it's a far cry from The Ring. But here the humdrum rituals of daily life get to hog the stage in a preternaturally concentrated manner.

More exotic things happen in "Two Nights", the shorter modern dance piece that follows. Here, three puzzling narratives interweave. The singers, now acting as a chorus, perform a cantata-like piece which is (pace Janacek) the diary, left in the hotel, of someone who disappeared. The dancers, Colin Poole and Gabrielle McNaughton, thrash around in spasms of expressionist anguish as two people who have spent different nights in this room and who have independent reasons for wanting to vanish. People do go to hotels to commit desperate acts and to change identity, but here I thought the two characters could have been in any lonely, anonymous room; you couldn't feel alienating pressure from the surrounding life of the hotel. This is not to deny the piece's strange, suggestive power. The woman, for example, arrives and changes out of a horribly blood-stained nurse's uniform. Suspicious? Well, you wouldn't want to be manning Room Service in that joint.

To Sat, The Place, London, WC1 (0171-397 0031)