BWW Reviews: THE HOTHOUSE, Trafalgar Studios, May 9 2013
Pinter's The Hothouse is the second production in the Trafalgar Studios' current season of newly commissioned and revived politically-charged plays which examine the psychology of the modern world. The Hothouse certainly ticks those boxes and, with a strong cast including Simon Russell Beale in the lead, is certainly a highly entertaining evening. If the concept dates a bit, the humour doesn't, and Jamie Lloyd's production races along.
However, although a rather eerie vision of the future for its time, these days The Hothouse's Kafkaesque fantasy seems to cover well-worn territory. The 1958 play is set in an unspecified institution, home to patients or residents - it's not clear which - in which electro-shock treatment of some kind is being used to some end - it's not clear what. We never see the patients, but it is evident that unrest is brewing, and one of the many big political themes The Hothouse deals with is the danger of power in a social hierarchy.
Russell Beale's characteristic campery sets a tone at odds with the stifling, treacherous atmosphere of the institution, though his performance is offset by a consistently level-headed Gibbs, his right hand man, played by John Simm. Harry Melling is excellent as the nervous, dim and deluded lock-checker Lamb who, as his name suggests, becomes a sacrificial victim of the institution he has invested so much faith in. There is a stylised simplicity to Pinter's play (with their trite names, the characters are a bit like sinister versions of Cluedo characters) which Lloyd's production picks out nicely - the outrageous Miss Cutts (Indira Varma) wouldn't be out of place as the insatiable flirt in a Carry On film.
Its subject might still be relevant today, but The Hothouse is definitely a 50s vision of a dystopia, and presumably it is to get around this problem of outdatedness that it has been directed for its comic value above all else. After all, Pinter's dialogue is very funny. But the power of the play lies in contrasting this humour with glimpses of its opposite - of psychological disturbance caused, we gather, by clinically-executed torture. As an audience we need to have our imaginations piqued by restive insinuations, of which Pinter's play contains plenty, but in this production these are mainly lost among the jokes.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable production but oddly, given the play's disturbing subject matter, its political implications never quite hit home. Strong, witty scenes make for a fast-paced show, excellently acted, but the dramatic centre of The Hothouse - and this is perhaps true of the script as well as of the production - is elusive.