Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento draws its name from its principal setting, a seaside retreat on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. Its concerns include how others see Australians, and how we see ourselves. The play was first published in 1990, and a film adaptation was released in 1995. I was curious to see if this staging would be a time capsule, or would it also have relevance to Australia in 2018?
The story is largely told through the lives and attachments of the Moynihan family, in particular, the three adult daughters of patriarch Wal (Dennis Coard). Writer Meg (Kim Denman) hasn’t been back to the family home ‘Hotel Sorrento’ since moving to London ten years ago. Her novel portraying life in a small Australian seaside town was recently announced as a nominee for the Booker Prize.
Pippa (Joanne Booth) is an advertising executive who’s been working in New York for some years. Hilary (Ruth Caro) works in a local café and hasn’t left Sorrento. Following her husband’s death in a car accident, she looks after widower Wal in the family home with her teenage son Troy (Saxon Gray).
After a time of low occupancy, Hotel Sorrento is about to receive some extra guests. Pippa has returned for an imminent work assignment in Melbourne. Meanwhile in London, Meg’s English husband Edwin (Dion Mills) suggests a covert trip home as an escape from the demands of book promotion, consenting to accompany her.
Of course, other Australians also find Sorrento a restful place, such as teacher Marge (Jenny Seedsman) who owns a weekender there. As she reads Meg’s novel from the pier, she joins the dots, excitedly informing her visiting former colleague (now journalist) Dick (Mike Smith) that the town of the text is Sorrento.
It doesn’t take long for the admirer and the newshound to track down the Moynihans and learn of Meg’s imminent arrival. Following Meg’s very unflattering opinions on Australia in the English Press, Dick thinks she has some questions to answer.
Whilst the stage is set for a collision of ideas on various fronts, when the impacts come they are often insubstantial or unconvincing. Marge likes to stereotype men as emotionless, recalling something like John Gray’s 1992 book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.
A few days after her return, and without having left Sorrento, Meg proclaims that Australia hasn’t changed in 10 years. The superficiality of these judgements, especially in the case of our novelist, greatly diminish our inclination to take them seriously.
However, the odd well-worn stereotype or credibility gap in a play approaching its 30th birthday wouldn’t matter so much if these were the only issues for the audience to contend with across the two acts. This was not a slick production; clunky scene changes almost long enough to fit an ad break sabotaged the story’s momentum.
The snippets of uninspired interstitial music were first cringeworthy and then almost laughable, as the setting and performances far too often made this seem like a long episode of Home and Away. (If you want the flavour of what we heard, about the first 35 seconds of this soapie pisstake from the early 90s will be a good guide!
As for the performances, so often we were presented with flat characters so unnaturally realised that they became both difficult to accept and substantial distractions. Edwin was humourless toffee-nose with a demeanour that doesn’t suit his words in some scenes when he actually made an effort to connect with another human.
Marge was so earnest and over-enunciated that it was far easier to see a performance rather than a character. Meg went beyond uptight, her unrelentingly rigid delivery sounded as if it could have been supplied by a not-particularly-lifelike cyborg.
Some characters had a better time of it. Coard’s Wal was immediately recognisable as the kind of knock-about bloke of Aussie fokelore, and Smith’s Dick was allowed a measure of belated self-awareness. Gray’s Troy did well as a youth at that tentative time between being a boy and a man. Booth’s Pippa found a measure of complexity.
Caro’s Hilary had the greatest emotional range as she found reasons to abandon her public stoicism in the company of her mostly-absentee sisters. It was unfortunate that when Pippa and Hilary had their later confrontation, their reactions seemed unfathomably arbitrary, suggesting that a nuance of the relationship hadn’t received adequate attention earlier.
The steady accumulation of deficiencies in this plodding production probably put me into a mindset to look for others, which compounded into a very unsatisfying experience for both my guest and myself. We weren’t even given an adequate sense of the times so we could appreciate it as (at least) an historical work.
Dr Rayson has a slew of awards and distinctions over more than 30 years of writing across multiple forms. This staging of Hotel Sorrento didn’t celebrate her work. What it did do was give us a new slant on one of Meg’s issues, essentially that Australians don’t care much about the artists and the art they make. The apparent lack of rigor or care in the development and execution of this piece suggests she had a point.
Gasworks Arts Park, 21 Graham Street, Albert Park
Performance: Thursday 31 May 2018 – 7:30pm
For more information and additional performance dates throughout June to September 2018, visit the Hit Productions Facebook Page for details.
Image: Saxon Gray (Troy), Dennis Coard (Wal), Joanne Booth (Pippa) and Ruth Caro (Hilary Moynihan) in Hotel Sorrento (supplied)
Review: Jason Whyte