Theatre review: Hotel at the Shed, National Theatre

shannon tarbet as frankie
tom rhys harris as ralph
and Hermione Gulliford as Vivienne

shannon tarbet as frankie tom rhys harris as ralph and Hermione Gulliford as Vivienne - Credit: Archant

Islands are often used in literature as metaphors for the horrors of colonialism. In drama, hotel rooms carry associations as claustrophobic microcosms that fail to provide the escape they promise.

In Highgate playwright Polly Stenham’s brutal and bleak play Hotel, she fuses both to deadly effect. Her influences are clear: Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Sarah Kane’s hotel-room play Blasted. But Hotel shocks on its own terms. It’s a disturbing examination of the issues of colonial tourism and of Western aid in Third World countries.

A privileged family is holidaying in a luxury resort off the coast of Kenya. The wife, Vivienne, has been forced to resign as Secretary of State for Trade and Investment because her househusband Robert has been having online trysts with girls half his age.

Their son Ralph is not innocent in the affair and his sister has a problem with alcohol. When Ralph tells Robert he was masquerading as his dad’s lover, his confession is nothing compared to the destruction that follows when they find themselves at the mercy of an unforgiving hotel maid.

So who is to blame for all this mess? With his hunched shoulders and hangdog expression, Tom Beard’s erudite Robert talks a good apology but the venom that erupts when he acknowledges his cowardice acutely shows how much he survives through self-deception.

Hermione Gulliford’s brittle Vivienne is so removed from everyday life that she struggles to comprehend the damage her strings-attached policies have caused – even at gunpoint. And the children? Polly Stenham always excels in writing blank, posh teenagers and Tom Rhys Harries and Shannon Tarbet are chilling and touching in equal measure as Ralph and Frankie.


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Maria Aberg’s production is razor sharp, there are plenty of witty one-liners and Hotel is only 80 minutes long but Stenham struggles to keep the momentum going when the political arguments get underway. Susan Wokoma is terrifying as the maid who proves to be a sadistic activist but the arguments about pesticide dumping are heavily handled and the hostage set-up smacks of a B-movie plot.

Still, an additional and explosive plot twist slams home the play’s fierce message: political conviction is overtaken by mercenary self-interest. Given the conflicts, the carnage that follows is horrifying but hardly surprising.

Rating: Four stars

Until August 2.