The paradise hotel on the paradise island in Kenya is occupied by just the sort of people you’d expect. Meet Robert and Vivienne, beautiful, white parents; Ralph and Frankie, their beautiful, white teenagers; and Nala, a humble black maid.
But no one’s getting on because Robert’s been caught masturbating over internet porn, Vivienne has had to resign from her job as a government minister and Ralph is mysteriously caught up in the affair.
This may sound familiar to those who know Polly Stenham’s plays: she has an eye for posh, dysfunctional families. Initially Hotel, Stenham’s fourth play, lives up to her previous work: Vivienne pinions guilty Robert (buttoned up in his holiday linen) with tight-jawed malice – “I don’t have cancer, I have you” – while the children smoke and booze distractedly. All four seem incessantly bratty and fatuous: “Somalia, Tanzania – such beautiful names.”
But then Stenham leads us into pastures new. Nala isn’t so humble after all, and the prickly, middle-class comedy turns into a revenge thriller thumping with violence. “I thought you wanted a desert island experience,” says Nala. And she gives them one – a bit like Lord of the Flies. The ensuing ultra-violence provokes squeamish squeals from the middle-class audience. It’s also often funny.
But Nala’s revenge, we are told, is rooted in politics. Clad in “the shiny garb of free-market capitalism”, the UK, in her eyes, is still a colonial power enslaving Kenya’s poor. And Vivienne, the former British politician, is implicated because of something to do with fertilisers. (Most of the information is screamed at gunpoint, which makes it hard to follow.)
The idea that white colonialism survives in subtle guises is valid, if not revelatory. But Stenham swamps it with too many turgid details. Her play may pretend to be about colonialism, political terrorism and Somali pirates, but these aspects feel forced. At its core, Hotel is about civilisation peeled down to savagery. And that is where Stenham is at her brutal, universal best.
Naomi Dawson’s set is sleek and minimal: bright white furnishings bathed in blue light – high-end chic begging to be spattered in blood. Director Maria Aberg creates a nerve-wracking 80 minutes. And the acting is all good – especially Shannon Tarbet as the pretty daughter with a very cold streak.
nationaltheatre.org.uk, runs to August 2