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A CurtainUp London Review
The winner was Ben Ellis whose play The Armour captures the history of this beautifully marbled foyer hotel. With three plays from the present day through the 1970s to the 1870s, Ellis' play has that sense of style and living history of this iconic hotel. I had found myself last time at The Hotel Plays wanting to know more about those who actually stayed and dined here and The Armour starts to fill some of the gaps.
The first scene set in a bar with a band area in 2015 is between a female rock star Jade played by S Club 7 singer Hannah Spearritt and her manager Franky (Thomas Craig). Jade is due to appear in an arena on her come-back tour and is in need of reassurance. She illustrates the loneliness of celebrity. Franky listens as Jade explains what is troubling her and his persuasion is gentle and based on their shared history and his clowning as Dr Zob, a psychoanalyst with a funny accent and Groucho Marx nose, glasses and moustache. Jade has liberated a historic jacket from a glass case in the hotel.
As I reflect on who are the clientele that patronize five star luxury hotels, I'm are taken up in the lift several floors to where in the 1970s, a part of the Langham became extra offices and studios for the nearby BBC's Broadcasting House overflow. Here an American businessman prepares for his radio interview while people drink noisily at the BBC Club bar downstairs. It is an ill-equipped scruffy room with a small recording studio next door with the windows covered with nailed plywood.
Peter (Simon Darwen) is promoting shipping containers and predicting the effect that will have on the docks of Hamburg and London, "the rotting teeth of Europe". Eloise, his wife, (Siubhan Harrison) is trying to get her marriage back on track after Peter's return from the war in Vietnam, where he lost his brother David. It was seeing how the army moved equipment that gave Peter the idea of applying this to merchant shipping. Eloise is ambitious both for her marriage, a family and Peter's future wealth. She also has that quality of voicing her needs but wrapped up in praise for him. I found myself thinking Lady Macbeth as she eggs on her husband. This act has the sense of change in the 1970s to labour controls and also is about the trauma of warfare as well as a change of use for part of the hotel.
We are again shepherded up the stairs to a pretty palm filled room with an elegant chaise longue in 1871. Here the deposed Emperor Napoleon III (Sean Murray), sick with gall stones, is staying with his wife the Empress Eugenie (Finty Williams) after his defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. This last scene tells us about this remarkable man, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Apart from commissioning the re-design of the Parisian avenues and boulevards and the building of its great railway stations, rewriting his famous predecessor's supposed statement when told that the poor did not have enough bread, she said, "Let them eat brioche", Napoleon III offered a prize for a scientist who could find a cheap substitute for butter and oleomargarine was invented. So the more useful . . . "Let them eat margarine".
They discuss going to IndoChina, part of the French Empire now known as Vietnam. As a social reformer, Napoleon III made strikes legal. Something the striking dockers might not have known when protesting about the job losses to shipping containers. We also learn about the famous coat from the glass case but you'll have to go to the Langham to solve that particular mystery. Ben Ellis has highlighted these intricate connections from his research.
There are plenty more untold stories in the Langham, the gala opening attended by the Prince of Wales, Mark Twain's visit, Frank Harris, the composer Dvorak scandalizing people by staying in a double room with his adult daughter to save money, to the stay of another exiled emperor, Hailie Selassie.
Once again defibrillator know how to mount a good story in a remarkable setting with fine direction and good performances. This is the kind of theatre you do not forget; defibrillator captures your imagination.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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