Roughly six months ago, Ben Ellis emerged from a fierce selection process with a commission to write a play that would be site-specific to the elegant Langham Hotel. This is its second collaboration with theatre company Defibrillator and marks the Langham’s 150th anniversary. Spearheaded by former S Club 7 member Hannah Spearritt in the role of a troubled diva and Sean Murray playing an exiled and ageing Napoleon III, The Armour explores the paradox of Grand Hotels: they promise the privacy of secluded rooms yet warrant public exposure.
The play is compounded of three sketches. In the first, a pop star in glittering high-heels confides to her manager on the struggles of motherhood and fame. We are then taken back to the 1970s, when the hotel served as a makeshift recording studio for the BBC, and introduced to Peter, a self-made businessman with a post-Vietnam trauma that threatens to ruin his marriage to Eloise. In a minuscule dim-lit room, the atmosphere is appropriately promiscuous and uncomfortable. Simon Darwen and Siubhan Harrison’s outstanding acting is helped on by Ben Ellis’ sharp text as they confront the emotional damages leftover from the war.
I had no trouble imagining that we had travelled back to 1973. The Armour wants to be an immersive experience, and it is. As we climb the large stairs further back into the history of the hotel, the light grows weaker and the venues more intimate. Holly Rose Henshaw’s epochal costumes withstand close scrutiny and James Turner’s decors are evocatively minimalist. The final act most convincingly merges the history of the hotel with the action as Napoleon III, at the twilight of his life, reminisces in a candle-lit room about the glorious days of the Empire and fails to pretend the future might bring more of the same. Sean Murray and Finty Williams, as Napoleon’s wife Eugenie, deliver a touching and poignant lament for a fading era.
From the cast to the decors to the script, The Armour gets everything right. The evening is a leisurely promenade, at once funny and moving, that is lavishly rounded up with a champagne reception in the basement bar. Napoleon and Eugenie reckon they ‘can be who we are for one more night,’ and we are encouraged to jump in their shoes. Nevertheless, I could not help but feel that the text fell short of exploiting the majestic potency of the hotel: which it offers a rigorous historical tour, The Armour’s sense of place is more artificial than tangible.