Privileged dysfunctional families are to Polly Stenham what daffodils were to Wordsworth. You don't brace yourself for shocks reminiscent of Sarah Kane's Blasted, another piece set in a hotel room. At the start of her fourth play and National Theatre debut, we seem to be in familiar Stenham territory. A rich, damaged couple have just arrived with their posh, precocious kids at a remote luxury resort off the coast of Kenya.
Stenham captures all the exquisitely uncomfortable comedy of the situation as the disgraced Robert (a tetchily rueful Tom Beard) struggles to save his marriage and rebuild his relationship with his 17 year old son and 14 year old daughter for whom he sacrificed his own career. An atmosphere of obscure tension is expertly created from the outset in a short introductory episode where Shannon Tarbet’s playfully goading Frankie challenges her brother Ralph (excellent Tom Rhys Harries) to a race. If he loses it, he has to tell their father his secret.
The mystery of what the boy can have done adds to the uneasiness of the mordantly funny scenes in which the vodka-tippling children exploit Robert’s loss of authority and his spouse, aghast at the “screaming banality” of his virtual adultery, speculates that he might be driven by the desire to sabotage her professional success. And when Ralph discloses his secret, it fascinatingly complicates the questions about betrayal and the right to privacy that the play has raised.
I wish that I could be as enthusiastic about the rest of Hotel which seems to have been written as a thumping riposte to detractors who claim that the Stenham world is too hermetic. Nala, the black maid (Susan Wokoma), has always seemed unduly watchful and is suspiciously unable to reassemble flannels folded into the shape of swans when she is startled into accidentally dropping them. What is her game? We find out with a vengeance in a violent development directly related to aid deals with conditions affecting the Kenyan flower industry that Vivenne had signed.
The trouble is not in the performances nor in the politics (there is an argument that aid with provisos is “the same old colonial shit, just dressed in the shiny drag of free-market capitalism”) nor in Maria Aberg’s powerful production that keeps its head as all hell breaks loose.
The drawback, rather, is the paradoxical air of contrivance that pervades the piece as bloody reality invades the family’s pampered sanctum, with Nada built up too consciously a sort of set-dismantling reverse-Prospero who even compels Vivienne to say “these things of darkness I acknowledge mine’’.
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