Cycling along the Thames path, I passed some very interesting jetties. For the most part these structures were unsafe and gated off. Sometimes they’ve clearly fallen into disuse and rusted; others are being cultivated for purposes I can only begin to divine. A surprising number have little lawns on them. Perhaps the plan is to use them for community gardens. I hope so. As I approached the O2, the area quickly changed. The rock sand and green water gave way to the bright blues and greens of floodlit brands. On the edge of this is another jetty, a new venue called The Jetty. It’s a project made possible by Greenwich Peninsula, which is a massive development of luxury housing in Greenwich.
Heartbreak Hotel, opened there this week and designer Carla Goodman has clearly been given full reign in doing what she wants with the space. The flashy sign on the roof and the tacky seaside entertainments as you enter suggest some kind of end-of-the-pier show. This slight sense of melancholy (British seaside entertainment can’t avoid a tinge of melancholy) is undercut by the menace of the words “Heartbreaker You Got the Best of Me” scrawled, as if in blood, on the wall as we enter the space. Of course, it might be more threatening to someone who didn’t recognise it as being a lyric from a Mariah Carey song. Inside, there’s no sense of either melancholy or menace. Ushers and staff are cheery and smiley, albeit slightly harassed. They’re dressed up but not in character. There are themed cocktails in jam jars, craft beer, pulled pork buns, etc. All the usual.
We’re allocated a room number on arrival. When our slot arrives, the ushers bellow at us telling us which way to go and we obey. I’ve been told that I’m room 2, so when I get into the corridor, I naturally (I thought) open the door to room 2. I am stopped. I mustn’t do this. They are surprised I’m even trying. I need to wait for further instructions. I’m not in room 2 after all. They aren’t rooms, they’re groups anyway. I’m actually in group 3. I need to wait for further instructions in my group. We’ll all go in together at the specified time.
It’s time. We’re ushered into a narrow room and addressed by an exaggeratedly camp rotund man who tells us about his ex-boyfriend who dumped him for eating KFC and how he’s gotten over him. He then asks audience members personal questions about themselves. In particular, he wants to know if one woman has ever had her heart broken. This is a favourite shortcut to intimate theatre that I’ve seen used before. I objected to it then but compared to this, Look Left Look Right handled the situation with total sensitivity. Everything about this character’s tone, however, has been boorish and brash. He wants to know the name of the man who broke her heart. The woman says “Bob”. It’s obviously a lie. Why would she tell him the truth? He is lying to us, after all. I’m sure she was pleased that she lied though because he then starts getting everyone to chant “Bob” over and over and to do a little dance.
Suspecting the whole show was going to be like this, I was relieved when we moved on to another scene and another room. This scene was totally naturalistic. We weren’t there. There’s even a kind of jump cut during which we are supposed to imagine that the couple have had sex. The rules constantly change as we go. In another, the performer addresses the audience directly, but in a storytelling style and a much more serious tone than the first. One has surreal elements to the staging that run counter to the naturalism of the writing. Each scene features a different set of characters and a different storyline but each one is about love and sex and relationships. Some intersect. Some don’t. The closest to an overarching narrative is a self-help guru who has an affair with the hotel cleaner. It’s possible that we, the audience, are being cast as participants in this scheme but this never crystallises because our relationship to the performers is constantly changing.
Heartbreak Hotel is not attempting to be high art, it seems fair to say, but it is not attempting unbridled silliness either. The stories include masochistic fetishists, the suicide of a lover and a couple dealing with the death of a child. There are calls for pathos. There’s even a kind of dramatic reversal in the final scene. The show’s had everything thrown at it but, like the ominous graffiti on the way in, it hasn’t worked out its tone or the rules of its world. There’s so much there and a huge amount of effort has clearly gone into the endeavour, but sadly the fundamentals appear to have been ignored.