Review: The Last Hotel

Seán O'Neill 2 December 2019

Twisted, sublime and enthralling, “The Last Hotel” showcases some of the most impressive creative and performative talents abroad in ‘CamDram’ at the moment, confidently delivering a difficult and enigmatic contemporary piece to the surprise and fascination of potentially unsuspecting audiences.

The extraordinary orchestra, conducted by Musical Director Tess Jackson, executes the manic darkness and haunting serenity of “The Last Hotel”‘s difficult score with stunning energy and precision; the string section especially (consisting of  Charlotte Howdle, Alistair Burton, Sam Weinstein and Jess Hoskins) performed with commendable professionalism, producing furious, hair-raising swarmings one moment, and warm, soaring poignancy the next.

Image credit: Aiden Chan

Similarly, vocal performances across the board proved excellent, with Lara Cosmetatos’ powerful mezzo wonderfully melding with Sophie Ellis’ gentle yet immaculate top register. Characters rarely sing together in “The Last Hotel”, heightening a pervasive sense of alienation and isolation gorgeously remedied, if just for a moment, by Ellis and Cosmetatos’ stunning duet. Where Ellis inhabits the understated “Wife”, Cosmetatos’ vocal strength seems rooted in the pain and turmoil of her enigmatic character (“The Woman”). Both actors support each other wonderfully, just as their characters embolden one another and together reach towards a self affirming peace. While afforded fewer opportunities to aesthetically impress, Morgan Overton navigates the incredibly difficult role of “The Husband” with tremendous talent, deftly handling some truly fiendish melodies and rhythms. Moreover, Overton nails the tyrannous, unsavoury nastiness of the role, for the most part maintaining a difficult character while navigating demanding vocals.

Image credit: Aiden Chan

These performances are completed by Arthur Goggin’s chilling portrayal of the silent “Caretaker”, whose strange “stage manager” role as both jailer and voyeur, witness and victim provides a contrapuntal unease to the opera’s darkest moments.

Goggin’s climactic destruction of the set proved devastatingly effective, and he deserves particular credit for conveying a wealth of feeling in utter silence. “The Caretaker” primarily interacts with the set — three macabre racks of hanging mannequin torsos — which proved ingeniously minimalist, versatile and rich with well utilised potential. He also watches some of the many short films utilised throughout the narrative, shot and edited by Olivia Railton. Similarly providing a contrapuntal, underscoring action, the production’s multi-media element is well integrated with the orchestra, and, though often enigmatic, supplies distanced interludes to stage action, in which the score can work closely with the silent film element to throw the narrative into a new light.

All of these elements come together thanks to the direction of Sam Tannenbaum (assisted by Oscar Simms), whose approach is intelligent and artful. Exercising welcome restrain in some areas and flamboyance in others, Tannenbaum and Simms are clearly passionate about exploring this piece and their enthusiasm and expertise shines through in their versatile set, well considered staging and the creative use of multi-media. As a consequence, the talents of the performers are supported while always given room to thrive.

Image credit: Aiden Chan

Unfortunately, in some minor areas, the ambition of the project proved unsupported by the direction; with moments between certain vocal phrases undirected and unperformed, the actors seeming to pause and ask the audience to wait patiently for the scene to progress while the orchestra got through the next bar or so. Furthermore, and often corresponding to these moments, performers occasionally seemed to lose their presence in the scene while concentrating on their vocals or waiting to come in with their next phrase. This mentioned, I ought to acknowledge that being absolutely present in an intense scene while attempting such difficult music is simply too much to ask from amateur performers who also have degrees to obtain, and these moments never distracted in a meaningful way from the suspension of disbelief.

All involved with “The Last Hotel” should be incredibly proud of what they have achieved and doubly appreciated for bringing such a challenging show to a Cambridge student stage.  We can only hope that more shows like this make it onto the scene here, and are given the same chance to shine as “The Last Hotel”.

4 stars.