Sunday, 2 August 1998

Hotel Sorrento, Aug 2, 1998

Hotel Sorrento by Hannie Rayson
HIT Productions at Merlyn Theatre Malthouse until August 15, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Review Aug 2, 1998

Australian expatriates are an odd breed. When away, they may complain about their adopted culture and defend their homeland to the death. On returning home, all that patriotism vanishes and home becomes parochial and uncultured.

In Hannie Rayson's very popular play, Hotel Sorrento, expatriatism serves not only as an escape from Australian culture but as an avoidance of grim family secrets.

The play focuses on three sisters who reunite at their family home in Sorrento after a death. Hilary Moynihan (Janet Andrewartha) has remained in Sorrento with her son (Samuel Johnson OK) and father, (John Flaus) running a cafe and being everybody's support since her husband died in a car accident ten years earlier.

Pippa (Christine Harris), the youngest sister, has returned briefly from her advertising job in New York. Meg (Celia de Burgh) has lived in London for ten years and her latest novel, Melancholy, has been nominated for the Booker prize. The novel is the pivot of their mutual antagonism. Its narrative and characters are clearly autobiographical, despite Meg's refusal to acknowledge this.

Rayson addresses not only expatriatism and cultural cringe, but also issues of love, loss and nostalgia. The ethics of plundering the lives of one's family for literature are questioned, as are those of intrusive journalism.

The writing is smart and the play well crafted with full characters and rich comic dialogue. My only quibble is that the revelation of the 'secret' is too rapid, rushing the play to a sudden end.

The performances are strong. Andrewartha is warm and poignant as the stay-at-home Hilary and de Burgh is suitably maddening as the hot headed over-achiever, Meg.

As her husband Edwin, Brian Lipson is the perfect meld of loving partner, intellectual snob and awkward Brit. The two non-family members, played by Jan Friedl and Ken Radley, provide us with outsiders' commentary on the family which is nonetheless biased by their own obsessions.

This production is directed by David Latham who was, ironically, responsible for Chekhov's Three Sisters last year. It starts slowly but gathers momentum after interval when the real conflict escalates and characters communicate more directly in the one location. The split stage of the first half leaves the narrative feeling disconnected.

Judith Cobb's design provides multiple locations with its old wooden pier and platforms. Real water on stage reminds us constantly of the sea that eventually takes one of this fraught family.

By Kate Herbert

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