Writer: Harold Pinter
Director: Jamie Lloyd
Reviewer: Alex Ramon
Following hot on the heels of Ian Rickson’s production of Old Times, there’s more Harold Pinter in the West End. This time, it’s Jamie Lloyd’s take on an early Pinter work, The Hothouse, which is the second production in Lloyd’s Trafalgar Studios season following his well-received James McAvoy-starring Macbeth. A very different beast to the arid enigmas of Old Times, The Hothouse has an interesting history. Pinter drafted the play in 1958 and then “put it aside for further deliberation,” only deciding belatedly that the piece was fit for performance and directing it himself in the West End in 1980. But, though quite stylish and cast to the max, Lloyd’s production of this heavy-handed comedy about bureaucratic extremism and state-sanctioned torture may make one conclude that Pinter’s first instinct in shelving the play was correct.
The plot – which suggests nothing so much as a Kafka story made over by Joe Orton – unfolds in a mental institution-cum-prison-cum-rest home. It’s Christmas Day, and the highly-strung, manically inefficient administrator Roote (Simon Russell Beale) receives two unexpected pieces of news from his prim assistant Gibbs (John Simm): one patient has died and another has given birth. Roote insists that an investigation be carried out into the incidents, but as this so-called inquiry gets underway – and involves other staff members, Lush (John Heffernan), Miss Cutts (Indira Varma) and Lamb (Harry Melling) – the abuses of power that take place in the institution gradually come into focus.
The programme notes – including an effusive article by Liberty’s Shami Chakrabati, no less – attempt to make big claims for The Hothouse as a prescient, profoundly political work. But this view is not entirely convincing. The points that the play is making – that institutions abuse their inmates and that torture isn’t very nice – can hardly have been startling in 1958, and the “those-running-the-asylum-are-loopier-than-the-residents” premise is very tired, familiar stuff. The characteristic Pinter mix of vagueness and obviousness is evident, but the jokes are feeble, the construction inelegant, and the conclusion flat.
There are some neat touches in Lloyd’s production – moments in which we hear the cries and sighs of the never-seen inmates are eerily effective – but overall there’s too much knockabout, and not enough real menace. A gimmick in Soutra Gilmour’s crisp design places some of the audience on stage, sharing the space with the characters, as in her and Lloyd’s Macbeth. But since the staging doesn’t really take this into account, those sitting in these seats look likely to spend a great deal of their time watching the back of the actors’ heads.
That may not be such a big loss, after all, since though Lloyd’s cast work strenuously, the results are variable. Simon Russell Beale’s performance – belly-rolling, eyes bulging, mouth agape – is too full of indulgent showboating to be truly enjoyable: almost every move the actor makes here looks overly worked-out and forced. John Simm is proficient yet bland as Gibbs, and Indira Varma vamps valiantly but to little avail in a poor part that attempts to inject a little sex into the proceedings. And Clive Rowe and Christopher Timothy, in two embarrassingly minor rôles, might as well have saved their energies. The production boasts two distinguished performances, from the stylish John Heffernan, a camp joy as Lush, and from Harry Melling whose jittery eagerness as Lamb (sacrificial, yes?) creates the only character we can actually come to care about. But, despite their inventive efforts and scattered elements of panache, Lloyd’s production ends up more tepid than hot.