Review: The Hothouse, National Theatre

Pinter is one of those playwrights who I know I ought to like but I’ve never really got it with his plays, never had that light-bulb moment that made me see what others do in him. So quite why I let myself get talked into going to The Hothouse, a play he wrote in 1958 but didn’t get produced until 1980, I do not really know.

It is set in an undetermined institution, somewhere between mental institution and convalescent home I think, which is run by a staff who have more problems than those at Holby City and Casualty combined. When the governor decides to try and solve some of the problems when Christmas Day sees one inmate dying and another giving birth, it sets in chain a set of events that reveals how rotten each member of the staff is, no-one ends up being free from blame and an increasingly sinister tone leads to a bitter ending.

We never see the inmates of the Hothouse, but we do hear the groans and screams, so the focus is on the twisted relations of the staff: the dark ambition of Finbar Lynch’s Gibbs, the keenness of Leo Bill’s unwitting Lamb and Lia Williams’ enigmatic and seductive Miss Cutts amongst others. The twisted take on the way archaic institutions are run is intermittently amusing but I didn’t laugh anywhere near as much as most everyone else. And once again, the familiar Pinter-esque touches just left me cold: as far as I’m concerned repetition is just repetition no matter who writes it.

And as the play ground its way through an interminable second half, one could feel the goodwill for the show ebbing away from a large proportion of the audience. In some respects, as a piece of Pinter’s early writing, it could be explained away as a developmental thing, a young playwright exploring his craft, but that almost feels like a tacit acknowledgement that it isn’t good enough to be mounted. And perhaps I’m biased by no really liking Pinter, but I couldn’t help but feeling that using such a platform as the National Theatre to investigate the minor back catalogue obscurities of a major playwright feels like a waste of a chance to offer such an opportunity to a piece of new writing.

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