[Review:] HEARTBREAK HOTEL, Etcetera Theatre, London.
This performance, written and directed by Lydia Vie, has a wonderful and exciting premise and presents an excellent range of engaging character types. Aesthetically, for the most part, it is also coherent and equally engaging in its eclectic and flamboyant design. A true feast for the eyes at times. However, I am afraid, the superficiality of the written text for this play restricts its potential from achieving much beyond visual appeal.
I shall start with acting. We are presented with a great range of abilities, but repetitive characterisations – derived, of course, from the caricatural and unnuanced characters in the text itself – allow for monotonous and shallow profiles. This is particularly the case for those less focalised by the text, such as Anna Oggero (playing Violet) and Christiana Maycea (playing Silver): Oggero's constant hugging herself or fiddling with her hands is, of course, effective in quickly communicating nervousness but very soon becomes far too shallow and unyielding. Maycea is perhaps the most unenergised of the performers, and I would have liked to have seen far greater intensity, vigour and presence in her performance. A great intensity, however, from Sevi Filippidou (playing Eden) who remains bold, confident and self-aware throughout, but, again, her repetitive repertoire of movements weakens our reading of her character.
Characterisation in performances like this, presenting scenelets in quick succession and lingering predominantly only on a few characters – in this case, Amber (Chryssi Janetou) – is most importantly achieved in silent scenes and in choreography. Unfortunately, wherever these actors are silent, they remain either frozen or perform extremely vague and indecipherable actions in slow motion. This is not effective in developing refined, precise and demonstrable characterisations.
Indeed, choreography is very poor throughout the entirety of the performance, either repetitive or completely illegible. An example of illegibility is in the last sequence wherein Eden paints her hands in red lipstick to smear over Violet's hands in stealing her heart – a very symbolic and pretty depiction. As Filippidou does this, we see Oggero pulling at each of her fingertips, slowly, with fluid motions. What this represents is most unclear. To provide an example of repetitiveness, I would turn to Alexis Danan's (playing Felix) daisy chain dance or Oggero's rather unenergised attempt to get out of the web of caution tape, seeing her stumble vaguely back and forth, in and out of the various taped-off sections. Oggero, for example, spends the vast majority of the performance, especially in early parts, simply filing her nails, which is a most pedestrian and unrevealing activity, eliminating any poignant reading of her character.
Audience perspective is not considered in choreography, either, particularly in what I shall refer to as the window-cleaning and the red-carpet sequences. Those not sitting in the centre of the house would be unable to see any of the action whatsoever.
With choreography being so intrinsic to this performance, that it should be so repetitive and so vague is a huge issue. However, this is not to say that choreography shows no promise whatsoever. Indeed, the concept of Jasper's (Ilias Alexeas) window-cleaning sequence is endearing and humorous in its quirkiness and variety. That Felix should use the daisy chain, which his lover had used to hang herself, in a quick, passion-filled tango of sorts is equally enchanting. Indeed, there is a definite creativity lurking behind the choreography, but the creatives, on this occasion, were simply unable to pull it off in practice, presenting unvaried routines and repetitive repertoires in each choreographed sequence. In fact, each sequence could easily have been halved in time and would still have communicated the same content.
I shall now move on to the text itself. Really, this play can be broken down into four parts. The first two, which constitute the majority of the performance's content, consist of the characters detailing their respective stories of heartbreak and of the characters playing games to pass the endless time they must spend in this liminal realm. The third part, in its brevity, consists of the characters breaking free from the hotel and moving on into the afterlife, and the fourth, even briefer, consists of Eden revealing her true intentions and trapping Violet forever.
That such focus and attention should be given to these two former parts – and, most surprisingly, to the second I have mentioned – and that these latter two should be so rushed and inconsequential is most peculiar. Currently, this performance feels incredibly undercooked, presenting various, superficial vignettes which, in their thematic similitude, give the impression that the overall plot is coherent, well-established and profound but which, in truth, reveal very little about the characters, their stories and their current shared context.
Far less time should be given to such unnecessary incidents as the characters playing charades, truth or dare and spin the bottle, and given, instead, to progressing the actual plot of the play. As it stands, it feels as though we are rushing through the meaningful elements of the performance – through the development of the characters and their inter-/relationships – and giving an unnecessary abundance of time to inferior, insignificant material. If the plot were far better developed, its significant and pivotal events would seem far less incoherent and haphazard: that Silver and Felix should fall in love, that Eden is, in fact, evil and conniving, etc. – both of which examples seem to come out of nowhere.
One recommendation might be to present the characters' stories in quick succession upon Amber's entrance, so that we may understand the characters in their entirety from as early on in the play as possible, and then we can spend the rest of the play developing these characters, seeing what roles their traumas and heartbreaks play in their lives now, how character relationships develop because of these, etc. At least one game sequence should be permitted at the very most, for respite from heavy content or to trigger another development – that Amber should start to crush on Felix, for example. Personally, though, I would remove these game sequences altogether, as they currently only subtract from the performance's profundity and consume valuable stage time.
The text seems to obsess over asking questions that are never answered, either when the characters are in game or with Jasper's catchphrase 'Have you ever felt so lonely you could die?' – indeed, that it should be Jasper's catchphrase and not Eden's is most peculiar. With so many questions being asked [and, again, never answered], bearing no relevance to the performance content whatsoever, these ought to be reduced or entirely deleted as well so that better focus may be given to more valuable story developments.
I mentioned Jasper's catchphrase, and I would recommend far more context-related elements like this. That the four 'chambers' of the heart should be translated into the four chambers of the hotel and that Elvis Presley's song of the same name should be played again and again add a great sense of context in their symbolism and familiarity. However, these are the only elements beyond the luggage and luggage trolley and Eden's phone conversations with guests that actually draw us into the context of a hotel. Indeed, the significance of a hotel as opposed to any other liminal spiritual realm is left uncommunicated. Once again, an undercooked reference which, whilst being aesthetically appealing, bears little fruit in the bigger picture of the performance.
We need to see what it is exactly about a hotel setting that should affect these characters. What are the relationships between the hotelier and guests? This question, in particular, is definitely something to better consider if we are to be at all shocked by Eden's final intentions. Even the performance's tagline, 'we hope you have an unpleasant stay', communicates a relationship between hotelier and guest, a dingy context of suffering and pain, but we do not actually see any of this in the text itself, only in our summations and personal imaginings. It seems as though the creatives have a great budding concept but have run away with it too quickly before it can be materialised in its final, more coherent form.
A few final notes. One could argue that not only this performance's aesthetic but its overall storytelling style rely heavily upon an abundance of theatrical properties, from the severed horse's head to the bubble bottle. Such properties are ubiquitous and highly significant. In this way, any pretence of an action where props are not used, such as Eden's leafing through the hotel's reservations book and Amber's presentation of a dagger, becomes intensified and extreme, drawing excessive attention to the inferior presentation of mime and relying upon the audience's imagination that is elsewhere not called into action. I would recommend removing all mime from this performance and replacing imagined properties with physical, material ones. Otherwise, an emphatic stylistic inconsistency arises.
There are a few, almost missable moments of audience interaction that are unnecessary and entirely distractive, and the vast, vast majority of these come from Oggero. This is a self-contained performance, never addressing its audience, not even in its various monologues. Thus, that Oggero should go so far as to scrub an audience member’s foot as though shining their shoe, look them in the eye, and roll away, has no purpose; it merely takes the audience member out of the performance and into an awareness of the audience-performer contract, the codes and mechanicality of the space and of the art form in general, and into an awareness of themselves and their own bodies. This self-consciousness is not in any way facilitatory in a performance like this.