Dirty Wonderland - a review

Frantic Assembly, Wednesday May 25, 2005

By Michael Kemp

Review of Dirty Wonderland, a performance by Frantic Assembly at the Grand Ocean Hotel, Brighton, .

Dirty Wonderland
Dirty Wonderland

Standing outside the Dome Ticket Office around 5:25pm, time for a swift pre-show pint in the “Mash Tun”, while awaiting the arrival of the Frantic Assembly bus to take me to Dirty Wonderland, a sold-out event at this year’s Brighton Festival.

5:45pm and spied a Wallace Arnold-type coach moored by Pavilion Gardens, flashed my ticket, boarded the bus with about 30 others and sped away (much as you can speed away during evening rush hour) to the peaceful hamlet of Saltdean.

Our guide for the outgoing coach trip was a louche fellow, falling just the wrong side of sleazy; appeared to be an Estate Agent of sorts, offering us first choice on luxury apartments and showroom developments. He put me in mind of early Michael Palin, all quiff and dubious moustache, from the Blackmail TV quiz sketch. As the coach weaved past existing Brighton and Kemptown properties, his marketing spiel over the crackly coach microphone became ever more improbable (Elton’s yacht is here in the Marina, as is Rock Hudson’s), ill-informed (the Rottingdean windmill was credited with supplying the town’s electricity, a sad little windswept café on the outskirts of Roedean School was accounted for as work experience for the girls); and gauche (on your left, St Dunstan’s Home for the Blind - good sea views).

Once we reached Saltdean and pulled up at the once-magnificent Grand Ocean Hotel and entered the crumbling foyer - the atmosphere began to darken. Our tour guide, unable to raise any sign of life from reception, went off looking for staff, only to reappear as a short-order cook with attitude. By this time two or three girls had sprung up behind the front desk and were offhandedly taking personal phone calls - until a young couple, touchy feely and obviously ready for their “dirty weekend” came carousing through the main door…

Then things started to get complicated. Everybody began moving in slow motion, like an underwater ballet. Pink petals were dropped by an invisible hand from the top of the spiral staircase, the lighting changed, and hotel staff began kissing, fondling, and dancing with the luggage. The hotel manager arrived and fell into a trance.

Amidst all this erotic mayhem, the young man who had arrived moments previously, appeared to have lost his girlfriend. After rushing up and down the stairs for awhile and attempting, in vain, to get sense from the strange hotel staff; he then beckoned for us to follow him through the ballrooms and bedrooms of the Art Deco hotel, trying to find her again - through ever-deeper circles of hell, as we advanced.

We were led into a “happy hour” lounge where another forlorn couple stared vacantly into space, spotlit mannequins appeared to sing electronica chanson, and sinister and unknowable bar staff glowered silently in the encroaching gloom. Then, herded through a maze of narrow corridors, the occasional door left open to reveal a young woman in black suspenders bending over in suspended anticipation, another door revealed a sad and lonely chef blowing out candles on a solitary birthday cake; another, a man wanking off in front of a TV set.

All the time we were being harassed by plainly-unhinged members of hotel staff, pushing past with trolleys, chasing each other from room to room, a reappearance by the estate agent still trying to sell a prospective client a holiday home. At the end of one particularly dark corridor we were all ushered into a small room, far too small, almost entirely taken up by one bed, where our protagonist (the young man) was getting hurriedly undressed and thrilling to the sounds of his beloved apparently making herself ready for him in the en-suite bathroom. But, as you may have suspected, something was amiss. The sensual leggy girl in the flesh-coloured camisole who entered and stepped onto the bed to greet him was not, in fact, his girlfriend, but a perfect stranger who told him to relax and not think about things so much.

He was plainly uncomfortable, a feeling I shared as the girl slowly turned to me and handed me the drink she was carrying, before straddling the man on the bed and initiating the ritual dance of love. However, our man couldn’t bring himself to do it and fled the room, leaving our brazen seductress understandably angry as she told us all, in no uncertain manner, to get the hell out of her room (and snatched her drink back from me - I was just about to take a sip from it too).

Back down ever-darkening passages, we suddenly stopped at a row of unattended doors and, without warning, a flurry of activity and three, four, five completely naked girls came rushing out of separate rooms, shouting and squealing, banging on doors, pleading to be let back in, running up and down the hotel carpet in the nude, careering into us as they did so…

Far more enjoyable than the next room, the scariest one so far, all of us ushered mercilessly into a cavern of deafening thundering disco beats, filled with smoke and in virtual darkness, I felt a hand take hold of mine (which I grabbed for dear life) and whisk me away to the far side of the room. As our eyes became accustomed to the light (and our ears to the noise) we could make out the entire cast dancing and fighting like savages in the centre of the room - before we were pulled, a human daisychain, back out into the unfolding corridors once more.

Then we found ourselves attending a mockup of a staff retirement party from hell, all cheap drinks and ersatz sentiment - the hotel manager, looking like Victor Spinetti, arriving and dismissing everybody on the spot. And then, on another floor, led into a disorientating room where the bed, beside table, lamp, chair etc. had all been affixed, at an angle of 90 degrees, to the far wall; the actors strapped in, as to appear as one with the altered perspective - the whole effect was like entering the room from the ceiling.

A nasty scene of everyday casual torture unfolded in the next room with a minion being bullied for amusement by his sadistic assistant online manager and forced to scrub carpets, first with a brush and pail, next with his tongue. We later found him hanging motionless, twenty feet up, from the chandelier in main reception. And worse was to come: down in the kitchens and industrial pipe-strewn basements. I noticed telltale drips of blood on the fire escape stairs down, but once in the basement proper these had increased in intensity to bloody hand-prints, thick visceral arcs and smears across the walls, scenes from a Charles Manson TV makeover programme; with the chef and others writhing around in unspeakable distress, some with their throats cut, others apparently giving birth…

Away from this carnage, the unctuous manager (Mr Victor Spinetti again) stripped to the waist and sitting calmly on a bed in semidarkness in a hotel room filled with trees, yes, real trees with tactile bark and the comforting smell of pine, informing us that he felt quite safe from the wolves and would be staying here forever.

Not us though, we waited in anticipation by a black doorway on the ground floor, vibrating with an ominous rumbling sound, till the errant girlfriend suddenly ran screaming from the netherworld in which she had been hiding and out onto a final dance floor where she and the rest of the cast shook their stuff in wild abandon, before a huge explosion and men in hard hats and torches ran from the back advising us to vacate the building immediately, as sirens began to go off all over the hotel.

Emerging into the light of early evening, heart still pumping, our coach awaiting to take us back to Brighton, one felt a sense of relief, tempered with exhilaration. Struck up a conversation with a young lady on the coach back and conceded it was the most exciting thing I’d seen in years, then falling silent before the calm sea.