At just 19-years-old Polly Stenham penned the award-winning gritty family drama That Face, which resulted in her being the toast of the Royal Court. Now, eight years on, Stenham’s latest offering is a dark and disturbing three-act play entitled Hotel.
Robert (Tom Beard) has taken his family on holiday to a remote Kenyan island in an attempt to repair his marriage which is in tatters following the revelation that he was involved in an internet sex scandal. Following mass media coverage of the story his wife Vivienne (Hermione Gulliford) has been forced to resign from her post as Secretary of State for Trade and Investment. Meanwhile, unbeknown to them, their teenage son Ralph is also harbouring a destructive secret. An unexpected plot twist soon makes their initial problems pale in comparison and causes this family’s stay in paradise to rapidly descend into a hellish ordeal.
Hotel is a play of two dramatically different halves. The first half is stylistically typical of Stenham’s previous works and centres around the interplay between family dynamics. This is illustrated brilliantly by the exchanges between siblings Ralph (Tom Rhys Harries) and his precocious younger sister, Frankie (Shannon Tarbet). For instance, the pair can often be found bickering playfully, as Frankie teases and cajoles Ralph into indulging her every whim – which includes persuading him to join in with her highly comical Destiny’s Child dance routine. However, Hotel does not circumnavigate the familiar territory of a dysfunctional family for long, as the second half – which is instigated by Kenyan hotel maid Nala (Susan Wokoma) – takes a drastically explosive turn that is extremely reminiscent of Sarah Kane’s play Blasted.
Thematically, Hotel centres around ideas related to betrayal, fear, revenge, blame, accountability and post-colonialism – vast themes that this work struggles to explore in any great depth. This is not surprising considering they are all crammed into a play that is only 80 minutes long. However, both director Maria Aberg and the accomplished core cast should be commended for their disturbing and physical portrayal of violence and brutality. In particular, Wokoma’s writhing around in pain was delivered with such plausibility that it made for uncomfortably visceral viewing.
In Hotel, Stenham has created a series of engaging characters that inhabit a plot littered with shocking twists and turns. However, the element I found most surprising was the work’s abrupt ending. By opting for a cliff-hanger style finish the piece lacked any resolution, and I was left feeling unclear what message (if any) the audience were supposed to take away from what they had just witnessed.
If Stenham’s intention was to lure her audience into a false sense of security, only to then pull the pristine white hotel rug from under their feet, and leave many in an open-mouthed state of shock and confusion, then she succeeded.
Hotel is playing at the Temporary Theatre (formerly known as The Shed) at the National Theatre until 2 August. For tickets and more information please see the National Theatre website. Photo by Kwame Lestrade.