If the recent West End revival of Harold Pinter’s ‘Old Times’ made you want to leap on stage and demand the cast stopped talking in glacial non sequiturs until somebody explained what the hell was going on, don’t give up on the greatest British playwright of the twentieth century just yet.
Pinter was an actor before he was a writer, and ‘The Hothouse’ – written in 1958 but not staged until 1980 – bears the mark of the populist rep comedies he’d honed his craft with. Given a berserk, full-throttle revival by Jamie Lloyd, the second entry in the Trafalgar Transformed season (after the James McAvoy ‘Macbeth’) comes across like a pleasingly deranged, Orton-esque hybrid of old fashioned English farce and Pinter’s brutal ‘80s satires.
There are few sights more reassuring in theatre than the great Simon Russell Beale hamming it up, and with his bulging eyes, wriggling moustache and turbocharged, nonsensical rants he has an OTT ball here as Roote, the deeply confused and outrageously self-pitying warden of a strangely non-specific institution.
He is not having a good day: according to his prissy, insect-like deputy Gibbs (a deeply creepy John Simm), one of the institution’s nameless ‘inmates’ has just died, and another has just given birth to a child – neither things that should ‘technically’ be possible.
The play is a broad satire on totalitarian regimes, one that suggests the decay and collapse of corrupt regimes is inevitable… as is their replacement.
Russell Beale recently played Stalin in the NT’s ‘Collaborators’, and it’s easy to see his Roote as a sort of Uncle Joe on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But he’s also mad as Gaddafi and as in denial as Saddam: there’s a definite post Arab Spring resonance to the play. Yet it’s also inescapably British – with their short public school boy surnames and strange English tics, it’s hard not to think of Westminster and attendant clowns.
Lloyd’s production does not, it has to be said, feel ultra-politicised, and the first half feels more like a great series of comic turns than anything else. Not that that’s a bad thing – Russell Beale is a hoot, John Heffernan lights up the stage as smooth-talking sycophant Lush, and Harry Melling puts in a supremely game performance as pitiable fall guy Lamb.
It’s left to Simm provide most of the menace, and once his dead-eyed Gibbs becomes more dominant the production find its sense of direction.
‘The Hothouse’ isn’t Pinter’s best or most elegant work, but Jamie Lloyd and his crack cast make a strong case for it being his most fun.