Arcola Theatre, London E8
Opened 15 June
, 2007

The second and final production in the Arcola's "Orient Express" mini-season, which pays acknowledgement to the Turkish origins of much of the surrounding district's population (and of the venue's management team), takes the title literally. The Pera Palas hotel in Istanbul was the preferred destination of many travellers on the Orient Express railway.

Sinan H. Ünel's play looks at residents of the same hotel room in three successive generations: a Turkophile English woman visiting at the end of the First World War (and the birth of modern secular Turkey), an American teacher in the 1950s and a gay couple a few years before the play's composition in 2000. Particular characters link the eras: a maid in the harem visited by Evelyn Crawley in 1918 becomes the mother of the man who marries teacher Kathy in 1953, and this couple in turn become the parents of Murat who returns home with his American lover in 1994.

But the play's chronology is not linear: scenes are intercut, and figures from two or even all three periods may coincide on the central stage area of the hotel room. Moreover, the cast of ten play more than twice as many roles, sometimes even switching gender. George Tardios, in particular, has a couple of semi-comic drag roles in earlier periods as well as turning in a mighty principal performance as the older father, Orhan, in 1994 scenes.

Director Michael Cabot and designer Jeremy Daker make full use of the Arcola's flexible, unconventional space, as buds of action blossom off the central area. On entering, we see the cast making their preparations in the same space, and one bank of the audience reclines on rugs and cushions. Ünel's play, whilst admirably ambitious, is in the end similarly diffuse. The keynote is understanding of differing viewpoints: not in the timid cultural-relativist sense, but the kind that demands effort and application. (Orhan, an ageing conservative by the 1990s, is lamenting the "old" values of secularism and democracy as Turkish Islamism begins to grow.) Beyond a general air of exhortation, though, there is little sense of passionate authorial drive. Still, the characters make for more than agreeable company for two and a half hours.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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