Review: Polly Stenham’s Hotel at the Temporary theatre (previously known as The Shed), National Theatre

Shannon Tarbet as Frankie and Tom Rhys Harries as Ralph. Photo Kwame Lestrade

Shannon Tarbet as Frankie and Tom Rhys Harries as Ralph. Photo Kwame Lestrade

Some people object to Polly Stenham’s plays because she often keeps a narrow focus on familial – if not always familiar – dynamics. I am not one of those people. Her characters – insolent, poetic, unapologetically confused – don’t give in. But you give into them.

Nevertheless her new play Hotel breaks new thematic territory. This isn’t always obvious and it’s not always smooth. Contradictory themes don’t so much blend but crash into each other with considerable force. I hesitate to expand for fear of spoilers but let’s say betrayal, accountability, consequences, violence and international aid all come into focus. Much of the play is not what it seems. Much of life is not what it seems.

With a running time of 80 minutes, the story gallops at a breathless pace. Maria Aberg’s direction keeps it on track, quite an achievement as often the play feels like a stampede. I admire Stenham’s lack of restraint and bold moral approach but she doesn’t go deep enough on any of her themes. She opens doors but lets them flapping in the wind. I would have been happy to hear any of her stories. When the adrenaline buzz settled, I could hear none.

The play was at its brilliant best in character moments: brother and sister dancing to Destiny’s Child. A fourteen year old simultaneously mocking and pleading with the world. The adults paralysed with incomprehension. No other playwright writes vibrant complex teenagers like Stenham does. Tom Rhys Harries as the brother and Shannon Tarbet as his fourteen year old sister create a sibling pair worthy of Tusk Tusk (my favourite Stenham play). They capture the moment of transition, when adult and child live in the same body, when innocence and first betrayal are vying for air.

Tom Beard (another Tusk Tusk veteran)  gives one of his underrated understated performances. Despite his subtle and unassuming presence, I find it difficult to look away, even for a moment. Hermione Gulliford navigates high pitched emotions with a fine sense of balance and Susan Wokoma performs a conjuring act of a role (to say more would spoil it).

For all its faults – or because of them – Hotel feels like the precursor of something better and bigger. It’s part of a journey but not the destination. It’s also a heady adrenalised experience. It’s hard to complain about that.

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