If there’s a gulf between England and Australia, the one a land of tea and manners and the other of “Fosters and vomit,” then the void of self-identity at the heart of Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento is wider and deeper.
The fact that the play is studied on Australia’s school syllabus but is only now, after 20 years, receiving its UK premiere, points to a further cultural chasm. “British critics,” says one of the characters, “can’t conceive that… something of beauty, profundity or passion could arise from an experience that’s essentially Australian.”
There’s plenty of graceful writing in Rayson’s play, multiple themes swirling in a naturalistic mist before the homecoming of three sisters forces skeletons out of cupboards.
The sisters – homely Hilary, slightly tearaway Pippa and ex-pat Booker Prize-nominated writer Meg – have become separated by more than just oceans. A wistful ache runs through the piece (the novel Meg has written is called “Melancholy”) although it’s maybe too overladen with ideas.
As with the Cock’s recent presentation of Jack Hibberd’s A Stretch of the Imagination, there’s also an overdose of literary quotations, from Browning, Shakespeare and Shelley, an unnecessary flaunting of learnedness perhaps intended to counter national stereotypes.
Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher skilfully steers through the narrative and draws strong performances from the ensemble. Shelley Lang’s beautifully observed Pippa and Alex Farrow’s impressive professional debut as the youth Troy best get the measure of the space, while Alix Longman’s tortured Meg suffers a little too visibly.
There are finely studied portraits of English politeness from Ania Marson and Alec Walters, and overt Aussie brashness from Edmund Dehn and Martin Bendel. Maggie Daniels is a sympathetic Hilary, the one who stayed home while her sisters fled to New York and London to avoid uncomfortable home truths.
The tiny stage at the Cock Tavern miraculously hosts three scenes simultaneously on Micka Agosta’s ingeniously simple set, stripped to the walls and thankfully free of clutter, an object lesson in economy.
There’s a musicality in Rayson’s language and structuring and the production is well-supported by Nick Jones’s gentle original score.
Spreadbury-Maher proves again his good nose for new or neglected writing (at least in this hemisphere), which bodes well for the Cock’s imminent season of six Edward Bond plays.
- Simon Thomas