The last Pinter play I saw was the star-studded Old Times as it neared the end of its critically-acclaimed run at the theatre named after him earlier this year. It was classic Pinter, all pregnant pauses, non-sequiturs, ambiguous relationships and more unanswered questions than the average episode of The Weakest Link.
In contrast, The Hothouse, the second of Jamie Lloyd’s productions for the Trafalgar Studios following his hugely successful, James McAvoy-starring Macbeth, is turbo-charged Pinter. Eyeliner-runningly funny, sharply satirical, whippet sharp and cleverly bonkers, it’s like A Clockwork Orange meets Noises Off with a dose of Orwell all brought together under Pinter’s young eye (this is An Early Pinter) and served up with a heavy dose of mega-watt acting. It’s at once an allegory of totalitarianism and a belly-aching farce. And every bit as brilliant as that sounds.
The play is set on Christmas Day in an unnamed institution that’s only ever referred to as a ‘rest home’, that coy description mocked by the occasional screeches and cries that rattle through the ancient pipes and walls. While it may be Christmas, there’s not much to celebrate here, there’s not a single holly-decked hall or stray bauble. The institution’s director, Mr Roote (Simon Russell Beale), doesn’t even know what day it is until his sycophantic, slimy underling Mr Gibbs (a wonderfully controlled and creepy John Simm) tells him. But Gibbs isn’t just on hand to guide his boss through the calendar (although at one point, that’s exactly what he does do), he’s there to inform Roote of two unexpected problems that have arisen within the peeling walls of the institution that Roote prides on running with military precision; one nameless numbered patient has died, while another has given birth to a baby boy. Little does Roote know that these two catastrophes will be one of the day’s highlights (cake aside).
The opening scene between Russell Beale and John Simm delivers a 100-watt jolt. The play races out of the starting block quicker than you can say “oh, that John Simm is shorter than he looks on the telly” (which, admittedly, is quite a long time). The physicality of SRB is amazing. He could reduce me to giggles with every bulging stare and incredulous gawp. Not that the others couldn’t match his brilliance, including Indira Varma as a pitch perfect parody of a femme fatale, Miss Cutts.
Instructed to root out the ‘rapist’ father of the baby, Gibbs turns out to be every bit as menacing as he seems, picking on the bumbling, naive new-boy Lamb who’s subjected to electroshock treatment so brilliantly acted by Henry Melling (Dudley in Harry Potter minus the puppy fat) that I was squirming in my seat, the intensity and horror sharpened by the comedy that had preceded it.
Simon Russell Beale is magnificent as Mr Roote, although he’s more cuddling that callous even when he’s beating the shit out of his impertinent subordinate Lush (deftly and charmingly played by John Heffernan). The comedy in The Hothouse is there as much to bring into sharp relief the horror of the place as it is to reduce the audience to giggly messes, but at times the eye-wateringly funny lines and the comedic delivery rather swamps the sinister message at the heart of it.
But it would be churlish to complain about a play being too funny. Pinter’s script is full of clever witty lines and Long’s production was not afraid to exploit the play’s physical comedy either. Even Russell Beale has said he took the part because he got to throw whisky in another character’s face, not once, but twice. And when you leave a theatre laughing (rather inappropriately) and are still on a theatrical high in Zone 2, you know he was right to.
The Hothouse is playing at the Trafalgar Studios until 3 August 2013. For tickets and more information visit www.thehothousewestend.com.
by Suzanne Elliott