Managing Ambition: …Until Monstrous’s “Hotel”

Posted on May 27, 2013


Keen experimentation is a luxury of student theatre; when there’s a safe space for exploration, why not go to the very reaches of imagination and ability? Josiah Lulham and Clancy Moore’s Hotel is a lesson in ambition; the show is both a celebration of adventure and a warning about managing conceptual experimentation.

The concept is this: one show (written by Lulham and Moore) with seven scenes, each one directed by a different director and performed in a different order every night. It is certainly ambitious – and intriguing. It is also, as it turns out, necessarily problematic. What this project needed was time and focus, and it appears it has been afforded neither. The result is a cool idea diluted by underdevelopment. That’s not to say that Hotel is lacking in enjoyment; watching where the concept succeeds and fails makes for an engaging, fun theatre experience.

And in some respects there is a great deal of success. Robert Smith’s set is wonderful. Each strip of faded, slightly greasy wallpaper screams of a hotel that has fallen out of step with the world; there’s a magnetic hypnotism about the space that traps the hotel’s inhabitants. The security camera projections are inspired, though I wish some of the directors had used them to better effect. As it happens, those directors who did make specific use of them produced my favourite scenes.

Some scenes are better than others, something I think is unavoidable considering the varying skill levels of the directors. The scenes with the strongest point of view came off as the most proficient – and were the most successful. I was quite taken with Benjamin Sheen’s eerie film set; it is a sumptuous interpretation marked by Sheen’s bold, effortlessly different viewpoint. Sarah Tabitha Catchpole is the only director to deliberately use the security cameras, a decision which makes her scene breathlessly gripping. Her work is the most recognisable, always one step further into the rough and raw than everyone else.

Justin Nott had the luxury of directing the best-written scene, an exchange which takes place during a chess game – a fact he confidently manipulates. He seems to have the most intuitive understanding of character, and his choices are refreshingly vexing and intoxicating. Alice Dawes and Casey Bradley’s scenes are less successful, simply because they feel less considered and less adventurous. I found Shannon Loughnane’s scene actually irritating to endure – granted he was burdened with what must be the most unnecessarily long monologue the world has ever known. Isabella Vadiveloo’s scene is commendably adventurous, though self-conscious.

At the Hotel.

At the Hotel.

Self-consciousness seeps through the entire show, it is the thing that holds it back from being a truly confident piece of experimental theatre. It is the actors who feel the least sure of themselves, an understandable fact considering the confusing nature of the piece. The writing is too underdeveloped for anyone to carry a consistent character through each scene, and it’s clear the seven directors have told each actor completely different things about who their characters are. The person who suffers most is probably Leech King (playing Eleanor Swanson), who is thankfully engaging and intuitive enough to carry off a proficient performance of an absurd character whose only descriptor is ‘totally insane’. She seemed the most burdened by confusion, but I enjoyed watching her push past the discomfort. The person who suffers least is Alex Thom, whose portrayal of Dr Forscythe is steady and elegant.

Brendan McDougall is a generous and perceptive performer, and I ached for him to be served better material than Harry, a character so one-dimensional I barely registered his presence for the whole first act. Remy Chadwick’s Benjamin had flashes of brilliance. Rohan Byrne’s performance as Bell-Hop was frustrating and selfish. Still, the performance is a hard ask for a group of young actors, and their collective determination to make the material work was rather absorbing.

As a workshop, the piece works well – it is certainly not a polished production of a perfected script. The rough nature of the thing fits the air of experimentation, but it could use some tightening. The concept is too much; rather than focusing on both narrative and perception (two concepts which grated on each other), the writers should have chosen one idea and zeroed in on that.  The questions “why should we start at the beginning” or “finish with an end” are not satisfactorily answered by writing a story with a clear beginning, middle and end, and then chopping it up and rearranging it – all this does is confuse your audience.  I would have liked to see a narrative that was more cyclical, with scenes and characters who were more tenuously involved with each other. To my mind, the idea of seven different directorial perspectives is stronger, and wading through each director’s stark interpretation was my favourite aspect of the performance.

With extra points for effort and imagination, Hotel is a certainly fascinating experience.

Hotel is premiering at the Guild Theatre from 23 May – 1 June. Book your tickets here

Matilda Dixon-Smith is You’re Dripping Egg’s editor-in-chief, resident television writer and occasional theatre connoisseur. Her column, Fantasise or Perish, is released every Monday.