Review – The Financial Times
27th March 2013
“A five star performance”
It’s early evening in the opulent foyer of the Corinthia Hotel in London. Guests perch on the lounge seats beneath a huge spherical crystal chandelier, picking at olives and sipping aperitifs, or hover around the floral arrangements glancing at their watches. Suddenly a distressed young woman bursts out of the restaurant, hobbling across the marble floors on her high heels and leaning on the arm of a member of hotel staff. Weeping and muttering urgently into the ear of her companion she traverses the room. Seven minutes later, she does the same again. Nobody bats an eyelid. Or if they do, they hide it discreetly behind their menus and laptops.
Such is the remarkable mix of public decorum and private drama in hotel life. The element of theatre involved in any hotel, that curious blend of role play and real life, backstage and front-of-house, has of course been celebrated in British TV drama from Fawlty Towers to Crossroads to Hotel Babylon. But now a theatre company has picked up the ball and run: Look Left Look Right is staging an immersive play inside a working hotel. And not just any hotel: the Corinthia is a jewel of cool, five-star elegance just a stone’s throw from the river Thames, where rooms start at £375 and proceed to £18,000. Above & Beyond, the show in question, takes audience members one by one, and guides them on an Alice in Wonderland-style adventure around the rooms, corridors and overlapping lives of this majestic edifice.
It is an irresistible prospect, appealing to the nosy-parker in everyone. For those not staying at the hotel, it offers a peep at the sort of accommodation they might never normally experience; for guests it affords a chance to see what goes on behind the scenes. Audience members become actors: starting at the staff entrance, they are kitted out in uniform, whisked around a warren of corridors, given a bewildering list of instructions, and then bundled out into the restaurant to serve (not knowing if your clients will be actors or paying diners). If you have never worked in the trade, I can tell you that there is little more terrifying than a restaurant peopled with well-heeled punters when you have no real idea what to do and only the scantiest concept of what might be on the menu.
It’s here that you meet the distressed young woman (who is a member of the company) and learn the reason for her agitated state. From here on in, you are propelled from one encounter to another, prompted on your journey up and down the hotel by “guests” and “staff”, conscripted into bizarre errands, confided in, alternately praised and ordered about, as you become a bit-player in characters’ personal dramas.
As immersive pieces go, it’s pretty gentle: you’re certainly not taken hostage or hurled down a rubbish chute or confined in a tiny bathroom with a traumatised rape victim – all of which I’ve experienced in recent years. It doesn’t have the gritty, slightly nerve-wracking edge of Look Left Look Right’s last piece, which had you wandering the streets of Camden being buttonholed by strangers. And from the hotel’s perspective, it showcases the beautifully appointed rooms, stunning river views and gleaming facilities, while offering a peek backstage that is carefully managed.
But the mix of real life and fiction does involve the considerable hazard to both hotel and theatre company of something going awry. Schooled to be part of the show, you soon imagine everyone you meet to be an actor: guests scurrying along corridors or waiters manoeuvring trolleys into a service lift. Twice I nearly accosted a member of housekeeping staff delivering laundry to guests, so convinced was I that he must be part of the drama.
Though the progress around the building initially seems random, gradually two concurrent narratives (written by Katie Lyons and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm) emerge, one to do with the history of the hotel (originally the Hôtel Métropole, it was taken over by the Ministry of Defence during the second world war) and one to do with its current profile.
It would be good if these two strands were developed further: both could be dealt with in more depth and some scenes have a fairly tenuous link. But at its best this enterprising show, directed by Mimi Poskitt and believably delivered by a fine cast, offers touching glimpses into individual lives. There is a playfulness to the piece, coupled with a frisson of risk and a fascinating element of serious inquiry into the way reality and fiction intersect and the roles we all play in life.