Review: The Hothouse, Trafalgar Studios

“I don’t need to have things repeated and repeated and repeated”

One of the best things about having a blog like this is that my thoughts about a show can be retrieved at the click of a button which means my patchy memory isn’t too much of a problem. And it also serves as a record of how I’ve changed (or not, as the case may be) as a writer, as rather amusingly shown by my response to the National Theatre’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse back in 2007 – a minor obscurity indeed! So safe to say I was less than thrilled at the announcement of the second play in Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Studios residency but his assembly of the kind of cast I couldn’t ignore if I tried, plus someone having a spare ticket, meant I found myself taking a seat on the cramped front row.

Set in an unspecified mental institution or ‘rest home’ on an unseasonably hot Christmas Day, The Hothouse starts off as something of a satire of institutional bureaucracy. The patients, unseen throughout, are all known by numbers rather than names and leading the diverse staff body is forgetful former colonel Roote and his model-of-efficiency assistant Gibbs who are dealing with a couple of situations that have arisen. 6457 has died and 6459 has just given birth and as Gibbs starts his inimitable investigation, it emerges that the culprit(s) is actually on the wrong side of the padded cell door and that the guards are just as imbalanced, if not more so, than the inmates.

The play is full of Pinter’s characteristic blend of humour and darkness and Lloyd’s production is strong on the laughs. Simon Russell Beale’s Roote is a manic whirlwind of bemused inefficiency, John Heffernan oozes a marvellous insouciance as the impudent Lush and Indira Varma slinks most sensually indeed as the edgy Miss Cutts. But there’s a strong undercurrent of menace that increasingly comes to the fore and this isn’t always successfully brought out as strongly as it could be – Roote’s descent into madness never really convinces as chillingly as it could as the audience is just laughing too much.

John Simm’s Gibbs is much more effective as bringing this malevolence to bear, as he epitomises Pinter’s main thrust about the corrupting influence of state power yet does it with a sibilant, gleeful sharpness. And Harry Melling as the puppyish Lamb, the one who falls most under his baleful glance, finds a tragic hopelessness as he gets crushed by the machinery of bureaucracy. But performances aside, I still do think that this isn’t Pinter’s writing at its gnomic best. It’s too fragmented in its construction, pulling in random elements like exploding cigars and splattered Christmas cake, and never cohering into a united dramatic whole. 

The quality of the cast mean it is never less than entirely watchable and from the great view of the front row, it is mesmerising stuff. Soutra Gilmour’s design suggests much of the institutional coldness of the 1950s but for all the trumpeting of this being the Trafalgar Transformed, the staging makes no real concession to the onstage seating and I’d be tempted to say avoid booking them as the direction felt front-facing more often than it did traverse. 

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £5
Booking until 3rd August

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