It is often claimed that Harold Pinter's early plays are full of menace. There is some truth in that, but here's one of his earliest with far more comedy than menace about it, even if it is set in an institution whose principal function appears to be to torture, or at least, subjugate its inmates.
'The Hothouse' was written in 1958, the same year that 'The Birthday Party' flopped when it first appeared in London, closing after just 8 performances. Harold Pinter left 'The Hothouse' to gather dust in a cupboard or on a shelf, or somewhere, for some 20 years before he directed the first production at the Hampstead Theatre in 1980. This revival by director Jamie Lloyd is part of the 'Trafalgar Transformed' season which aims to deliver productions “linked by a social conscience”. The main house has also been given a makeover for the season with the stage extended into the auditorium and room has been set-aside for some lucky punters to sit behind the cast right on the stage.
Designer Soutra Gilmour takes us back to somewhere around the 1950s – it could be a tad later, but not that much earlier. Well-used desks and variously-shaped chairs look like they have been plundered from an old doctor's waiting room, or borrowed from a decrepit church hall. Above the stage lurks a primitive contraption composed of wires dangling ominously, suggesting some kind of devious contraption the function of which only becomes clear later in the first half.
Simon Russell Beale is Roote the incompetent head of whatever organisation this actually is. It could be a hospital of some kind, or a prison or a rest home or... well, we never really find out. What we do learn is that the institution is sanctioned by 'the ministry', so has the authority of the state behind it. The inmates, residents, or patients... again, we don't really know what they are... are known by numbers rather than their names. And Roote has trouble remembering which number belongs to which inmate. At the beginning of the play, the deviously-efficient and slimily self-confident Gibbs (excellently played by John Simm) informs Roote that one of the inmates, 6457, has died. Roote is astonished and appalled by the news (especially as he believes he interviewed the deceased AFTER he died). But there is more bad news... one of the other inmates – 6459 – has given birth. And all of this adverse information floods in on Christmas Day of all days. Roote instructs Gibbs to seek-out the man responsible for impregnating 6459, but there's more than a hint that Roote might himself be the father of the child, though Gibbs informs us that many of the male members staff have availed themselves of sexual relations with the inmate in question. Nonetheless, Gibbs decides to question a junior member of staff, Lamb, in his interrogation room – which is where the low-tech contraption above the stage comes in.
Think of Captain Mainwaring from the BBC TV series 'Dad's Army' (yes, it IS still on BBC 2 every Saturday evening) and you won't go far wrong for an instant impression of Simon Russell Beale's Roote. Apparently a former Colonel in the army, Roote is totally out of his depth both as an administrator and a manager. Prone to rages and suspicious of his underlings, he is a man who almost senses his downfall. Roote swills down whiskey in the second half together with his subordinate, Lush (John Heffernan), who constantly tries to wind-up Roote with repeated references to the snow melting to slush. More scary and more sinister, though, is John Simm's Gibbs who seems to relish the idea of torturing the naive, but oddly enthusiastic member of staff, Lamb (Harry Melling), whose job it is to test the locks. Christopher Timothy appears at the end as the man from the ministry and there's excellent support from Indira Varma as a provocatively sensual Miss Cutts who is having affairs with both Roote and Gibbs, and Clive Rowe's Tubb, a member of the 'under-staff' seems to be the only 'ordinary bloke' working in the establishment.
All the names of the characters are monosyllabic words: Roote, Gibbs, Cutts, Lamb, Lush, Tubb and Lobb. Collectively, the names are somehow institutionally curt and sound very funny when reeled-off by Gibbs. They also seem to me to have another function, and that is to poke fun at the whole idea of this institution and its purpose. That fits with much of the general tone – there's more farce here than menace, even if the latter concept is chillingly real at least in one scene. But there are a few other references which also sound alarm bells. For example, at one point the rather fey Lush tells us that the ministry gave the organisation 'carte blanche' in how to deal with one of the patients. No-one laughed at that remark.
Whatever your take on the menace in this play, Jamie Lloyd's revival is studiously accomplished, perfectly-timed and memorably engaging. There is plenty of farcical humour and more than a smattering of great Pinter lines, though it falls rather short of having anyone actually rolling in the aisles. Still great fun, though.
"Harold Pinter was, among many other things, a comic writer; and I would distrust any Pinter evening that didn't make us laugh. But, richly pleasurable and boundlessly funny as Jamie Lloyd's new production of this early Pinter play is, I feel it misses something of its chilling political undertow."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"If you like Pinter done with snarling political bite, this isn’t the production for you, but it is a very enjoyable account of a play that can seem elusive."
The Evening Standard
"The Hothouse that prove that Pinter could be a master of the knockabout comedy as well as enigmatic menace...As so often, Simon Russell Beale delivers a tour de force...It’s a consistently gripping production of a piece in which Kafka seems to shake hands with Monty Python. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph