In John Osborne's The Hotel in Amsterdam, it's not so much a case of looking back in anger as of lolling back in luxury. A far cry from Jimmy Porter's sweet stall and one-room flat in the Midlands, we've graduated here - as Osborne himself did - to the moneyed media set. Not seen in London since its premiere in 1968 and now revived in a superbly orchestrated production by Robin Lefevre, the play introduces us to three couples who have sneaked off for a secret weekend together. Their aim is to enjoy a much-needed respite from the inordinate demands of a monster film producer, K.L., who appears to dominate their lives.
Performed on Liz Ashcroft's sleek, art deco-ish set, the in-period production brings home how this must be one of the most bum-numbingly sedentary plays ever written. The friends - a screenwriter, a film editor, K.L.'s secretary and their various partners - just sit around and talk. The irony is that having travelled to Amsterdam to forget about K.L., they can't stop themselves speculating about him, especially Osborne's surrogate, the writer Laurie, who is played in a tour de force of bravura motormouth oikishness by Tom Hollander.
The strained bond between this character and K.L. is partly based on the tempestuous relationship between Osborne and the stage and film director Tony Richardson (former husband of Vanessa Redgrave). As the author's autobiography ebulliently illustrates, Richardson was inclined to manipulate people in a similarly machiavellian way, but it also records that he "penetrated my heart inexorably and however fiercely I tried to banish it, I would never be finally rid of its implant".
Hollander skilfully communicates the fact that it's when he has to retreat into scathing abuse that Laurie shows his love for K.L. most. For me, though, what should have been the deeply moving scene where Laurie declares his extra-marital devotion to Olivia Williams's admirably posh and pained Annie, demonstrates the deficiencies of his portrayal. We aren't made to feel sufficiently the underlying pain of the man or the tenderness that's screaming to get out.
Laurie's nasally whined arias of comic grievance and outrageous taboo-trampling are the major source of energy in the play. Whether fantasising about an airline exclusively marketed to homosexuals called El Fag or inventing The Golden Sanitary Towel Award for grizzling women, he does not aim to ingratiate.
Several of Osborne's familiar betes noires come out for a canter. When Laurie declaims that "I think my mother would have put me off women for life, I mean just to think of swimming about inside that repulsive thing for nine months", his touching filial piety is of a piece with that shown by the dramatist. Osborne was never more bracing than when charging down the fine line that divides the unsayable from the unspeakable. Written before political correctness was invented and just after the abolition of censorship, the play was in a prime position to give salutary offence, but I'm ashamed to say that I longed for the bad taste to soar into even headier spheres of disgracefulness.
What is a real revelation, though, is how this piece plays so much better than it reads. As the whisky flows, Laurie may stand and deliver at every opportunity but the drama is no one-man band or interrupted monologue, because the expertly played group dynamics continually alert you to the subtle undercurrents rippling beneath the show of unanimity. The suppose faults of construction, which are glaring on the page - the strategic late introduction of a barely existent character, and the "theatrical" 11th-hour announcement of devastating news - simply dissolve as problems on the stage. Towards the end, the atmosphere becomes haunted by a fear of the future that now cannot be allayed by the defensive solidarity of this band of friends. For the excellence of the ensemble acting and the surprising stage-worthiness of the piece, this Hotel is well worth checking into.
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