ONE HOTEL, 150 YEARS, THREE PLAYS
Plays in hotel rooms are in vogue: there’s a voyeuristic intimacy and a pleasing sense of dislocation about them. And a grand hotel – the Langham was Europe’s first – is theatre in itself, a marbled set with a large cast. A couple of years ago the Carinthia down by the river offered Mimi Poskitt’s immersive, rather brilliant experience in which every (lone) viewer became a new staff member, hustled about and falling into decades-long time-warps from kitchens to rooftop as the guests’ stories interwove. This is a different approach: less immersive and personal, in which each group of fifteen or so remains an audience not a participator, and moves through three hotel rooms in three eras, tracking moments in its presumed history.
This company, Defibrillator, had a success with Tennessee Williams’ HOTEL PLAYS here, and now the hotel’s Writer in Residence Ben Ellis presents three short two-handed playlets – basement, third floor and seventh floor, directed by James Hillier. The matter of moving us around is untheatrically done (would have been good to have a solemn flunkey with an atmospheric script, perhaps) but the plays are sharply written and – by the end – thoughtful.
At first we are in the basement nightclub, where Hannah Spearritt is a spoilt, self-destructive pop legend tinkling at a keyboard, waiting for the helicopter to take her to the o2 and refusing to go, despite her exasperated manager’s pleas. The clue which links it to the last of the three plays is a historic coat she has stolen from a glass case, and which finally gives her courage. It is the least engaging of the three; but then, 21c arena pop meltdowns are wearily familiar as a theme.
The next play, set in 1973, chimes with my own Langham memories: it was a BBC building in the ‘70s, when its grand-hotel days seemed to be over. I trained there as a studio manager on aged Bakelite desks and loudspeakers the size of wardrobes; as a Today producer we were sometimes – like the continuity announcers – allocated a few hours there overnight, in spartan scruffy rooms with lugubrious lavatories down the corridor. Ellis has had fun trying to reproduce this in room 353 (probably to the present, ultra-glitzy management’s mild horror) where we find Ryvita soundproofing, an old microphone and some polystyrene cups. An American couple are waiting to be interviewed about his docklands containerization plans: we gradually learn that he is a Vietnam veteran, furious at the world, wanting to “rip out the rotten teeth” of the old world with its small cosy lives and found “a new nation coming – the Republic of Capital”. Which has, of course, come to pass. The actual BBC people are represented only by keeping these two waiting while they work out their angsty relationship. This one does catch fire.
Then up to the seventh floor: and Emperor Napoleon III, in exile in 1871 (he did indeed stay here) . He is lit only by candlelight as his Eugenie, in flowing nightdress (a splendid Finty Williams, all loving wifely exasperation), tries to coax him out of his suicidal, end-of-empire gloom. This one is genuinely spooky, full of sadness and an old man’s yearning for the great world of expansion and innovation which is crumbling . There’s a nice digression into the invention of margarine, which indeed Napoleon III did foster, with a prize for anyone creating a butter-substitute). This was the best of the three. So the 90-minute evening is – metaphorically as well as literally – a journey upwards… And then down to the bar again with a 15% food and drink discount for audiences. Because it’s the Langham’s 150th birthday….
box office seetickets.com to 4 April