Hotel Sorrento by Hannie Rayson.
Directed by Alexandra Pelvin. Assistant director Antonia Kitzel. Designed by Michael Sparks OAM. Assisted by Russell Brown OAM and Andrew Kay. Production manager Anne Freestone. Sound designer Andrea Garcia. Sound production Neville Pye. Lighting designer Stephen Still. Costume designer Helen Drum Stage Managers David Goodbody. Anne-Maree Hatch . Theatre 3. Canberra Repertory Society. April 28 – May 14 2022. Bookings: 62571950; www.canberrarep.org.au
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
It is easy to see from Canberra Rep’s very fine production why Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento has earned its rightful place as a classic of the Australian theatre. It ranks highly with other classic dramas such as Louis Nowra’s Summer of the Aliens or Michael Gow’s Away that investigate the nature of Australian life at a time of change in the way we view ourselves within our society and more significantly our place within the family. Director Alexandra Pelvin and designer Michael Sparks have remained faithful to the setting and the attitudes of the period. Sparks’s multi purpose set design, dominated by the jetty overlooking the water at Sorrento and the various locations across the Rep stage depicting the London flat of Booker Prize nominee Meg Moynihan, the Moynihan family home in Sorrento, complete with flying ducks upon the wall and the home of journalist Dick Bennett and his friend Marge Morrissey allows a continuity of the short episodic scenes that keep the audience thoroughly engaged in Rayson’s story.
Meg Moynihan (Rachel Howard) with her English husband Edwin Bates (Peter Holland) returns to the sleepy Victorian coastal town of Sorrento after an absence of ten years. The family home is occupied by her widowed sister Helen (Victoria Tyrrell Dixon) and her son Troy (Nick Dyball), her sister Pippa, recently returned from New York (Jess Waterhouse) and the sisters’ father Wal Moynihan (Sebastian Lloyd Berrell). Nearby resident Marge Morrissey (Elaine Noon) points out to journalist of a local paper Dick Bennett (Ryan Erlandson) that Meg’s novel Melancholy depicts people and places in their home town .
Meg’s novel and her return provide the catalyst for Rayson’s debate on cultural cringe and isolation, nationalism, patronizing attitudes and family dissent. Tensions and conflict erupt after a tragic event exposes the secrets and resentments within an average Australian family. Bates with his patriarchal attitude towards the colonials and Bennett with his fervent and staunch defense of the maturity and change occurring in Australia ignite a debate centred on Melancholy’s autobiographical content. As Helen points out “Only the names have changed.”
From the outset of the performance as the lights came up on Marge reading an extract of Melancholy to Bennett I was struck by the authenticity of the atmospheric impact of Pelvin’s direction. Director, designer, cast and creatives have remained loyal to the period of the play and Rayson’s keen and insightful observations of the Moynihan family and the changing and unchanging attitudes of the time. The entire production is entirely believable from the moments of ironic comedy to the heartfelt drama of the family’s tragic experience and its consequence. A wave of nostalgia sweeps me back to the Nineties and to the open stage productions against a colourful cyclorama. Rayson’s play is no dated theatrical dinosaur. In Rep’s faithful production it rings true with the relevance of a classic. In the midst of a Federal election when we are asking who are we and what do we want and need. Hotel Sorrento shines a mirror on the universal nature of society and its people.
It is the universal truth of the characters’ view of the world that Pelvin and her cast capture so convincingly. Holland’s portrayal of a pompous Edwin contrasts well with Erlandsen,’s honest, direct and defiant Bennett, counterbalanced by Noone’s conciliatory desire to avoid argument. Pelvin’s casting of the Moynihan family is perceptive and highly effective. Berrell’s father is a clear depiction of the simple, uncomplicated Aussie bloke. Dixon gives a moving performance as Hilary, a widowed single mother and the eldest sister, tied to the family home and bringing up her teenage son. Rachel Howard’s Meg effectively captures the alienation of the ex-pat, searching for acceptance and yet divorced from the effect of her ten year absence. Waterhouse convincingly displays youngest sister Pippa’s search for compromise and resolution. The performances by the three sisters are beautifully contrasted and nuanced in an authentic and absorbing performance. It is the performance of Dyball as the teenage son, Troy, that moves me profoundly in his depiction of the adolescent, bereft of his father and torn apart by the tragic event that impacted on his life. Dyball is superb in the role and promises to develop as an actor of great potential.
Rep’s production of Hotel Sorrento is a visceral reminder of whom we are as a nation and as a family. Our struggles are real. Our challenges daunting. But change is possible. And the truths we have to face are real. Rep’s revival of Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento is both timely and a faithful and finely staged production of this memorable Australian classic.