Direction and music by Sally Stockwell
Basement Theatre, Auckland | May 28-June 1
I go into way too many shows knowing what I’m in for. I check out the cast and crew, what they’ve done before; I check out any previous reviews a show has received; and I try to make myself as informed an audience member as I can be. I decided to go in the opposite direction with Gravity Hotel, staying as blind to what the show was about as I could, and was pleasantly surprised.
I can’t really offer a great description of Gravity Hotel, even after seeing it. It’s described as “a self styled anti-musical that brings together physical theatre, imagery and music in an intriguing cabaret-like ride,” which seems accurate enough. The plot follows a drenched girl (Julia Croft) who comes to a hotel with only her suitcase, and the three helpers there (Renee Lyons, Lisa Greenfield, Kate Bartlett) try to get her to settle in, by force if necessary. A sorceress-type creature (Sally Stockwell) presides over the activity, and is a dark, foreboding presence throughout. Music carries the plot, and is as evocative as the set, which is defined by wood planks on the ground, some movable frames, and a door on wheels.
My description isn’t quite adequate to actually convey what it’s like to sit in the audience, but it’s a genuinely delightful experience. The music, composed and largely sung by Sally Stockwell, is dark yet gorgeous and relentlessly catchy. It sits somewhere between pop and cabaret. Sung by Stockwell’s own incredibly powerful and versatile voice, it’s the play’s best asset. If it was available on CD, I would buy it pretty much in an instant. The lead character, as played by Julia Croft, doesn’t have lots of dialogue, so the music is our gateway into this world, and it’s a powerful one at that. It evokes the world of Gravity Hotel as one that sucks you in and seduces you into it. It’s through the music more than anything else that I get a clue as to what Gravity Hotel might be about.
The cast is impressive and work together well. Julia Croft is an appealing lead, even if she is overshadowed by the charisma and scene-stealing presence of what I’d describe as a chorus: Renee Lyons, Lisa Greenfield, and Kate Bartlett. All three have moments where they describe their own character’s massive regret in life, and it’s these moments where the play gets away from the darkly abstract into something human and palpable. Out of these three, Lyons (who was equally a standout in The Laramie Project, Cloud Nine and her own play Nick last year—definitely an actress I admire) is the most impressive, getting many of the biggest laughs from the audience.
Stockwell, also serving as the director of the play, is the star of the show. The most powerful image, about a third of the way into the play, is thanks to her commanding presence, but her voice is flat-out incredible. It serves her own music well, as you might expect, but it carries the play offstage and right into the audience: it engages us from the get-go and keeps us onstage. Even as she spends most of the play with her back to us in an elaborate, gorgeous dress that wouldn’t be out of place at a Bjork concert, she draws our attention and keeps us watching.
The musicians in the show, Robin Kelly on keyboard and Jonathan Burgess on double bass, serve the show just as well as Stockwell and the soundscape of the play is just as rich as the imagery, provided by Sam Mence and Amber Molloy. Without Molloy’s delicate lighting, some of the more subtle images in the show would’ve been lost on the audience, but she keeps them vivid and alive onstage. Mence’s sound design also makes some of the more shocking moments in the play visceral and palpably felt.
It took me a while to interpret what Gravity Hotel is about—or what it was about for me, at any rate. It seems to be evoking an emotional state, of not being able to forgive yourself for what you’ve done, and the people who are trapped there are being seduced by their own grief and regret. I could be way off, but I’m not too fussed. I had lots of fun at Gravity Hotel and I hope the show gets a long life with an audience as delighted as the one last night was.