‘The Hothouse’ at Trafalgar Studios

When I bought the tickets for ‘The Hothouse’, and then asked friends if they would like to join me, I told them, ‘on the downside, it’s Pinter, but on the upside, it’s Simon Russell Beale and John Simm’.  And now having seen it, I would repeat the same assessment.

Although it is very early Pinter, written originally in 1958, but kept in a drawer until the 1980s, it still bears many of his recognisable trademarks of mannered and repetitive, slightly oblique speech, a mixture of threat and dark humour, and lots left unexplained, with the feeling of something nasty hanging over the whole proceedings.

Set in an institution, variously referred to as a rest home or hospital, but whose nature is not entirely clear, in which the patients are referred to not by name but by number, dark events are unfolding.  Roote (Simon Russell Beale), the head of the institution, is confused and troubled by reports from his punctilious, but ambitious deputy Gibbs (John Simm), of the death of one patient and the news that another has given birth.  He demands that Gibbs find the rapist, father of the newborn, by whatever means necessary.  Not surprisingly, these means prove to be rather unpleasant.

It is Christmas Day, so although the necessary administration carries on, with reports being read from clipboards against the backdrop of occasional screams from somewhere distant, alcohol consumption and the receipt of the gift of a Christmas cake, add a comedic and occasionally slapstick element.  And Roote becomes increasingly paranoid and incoherent, fearful of the staff, the under-staff and the patients, and under pressure to make a seasonal address of good cheer.

It’s a satire on bureaucracy, where the head of the institution is probably the maddest in the mad house, or the most wicked in a prison, where rules are followed because they always have been, and each group is suspicious of the others, and where sycophancy is the way to prosper, and where the ‘patients’ are deprived of their names and their humanity.  And where, even when turmoil turns the place upside down, the only thing that really changes is the identity of the person who is enforcing the rules.

The echoes of George Orwell and Franz Kafka are highlighted in the set design, a crumbling government building where the paint is peeling, the floor is covered in chequered lino, and some of the audience sit on mismatched wooden chairs.  And the 1960s of The Prisoner are hinted at through the neat hair, sharp suits and John Simm’s spectacles.

It has the virtue of being quite a short play, although there was a (somewhat unnecessary) interval, and leaves you with the feeling that you might have missed something.  They real interest of the evening lies in the performances, in the timing of the dafter bits of dialogue, and the rapid delivery of the long, usually exasperated, speeches, and in the acting of each performer when it was not their turn to speak; it was then that the hypocrisy and the undercurrents of what was not being said revealed themselves.

Have you seen it?  What did you think?

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