Anyone doubting that Pinter was a writer of comedy should get along to the Trafalgar Studios, where Jamie Lloyd’s frenetic production of The Hothouse resembles the breakneck pace and energy of Orton’s The Erpingham Camp or What the Butler Saw. Although the script is peppered with them, there’s little sign of the famous Pinter pause, as the audience is subjected to the sort of speed-run the venue experienced in its heady days as the home of the Whitehall farces of the 50s and 60s.
Some of Pinter’s writing, such as the repeated routine of throwing whisky in Lush’s face, which was based on a real incident in the playwright’s life, is pure music hall and when the leading man is Simon Russell Beale, the quality of the comedy is assured. The downside of the enjoyment of seeing Russell Beale doing what he does so well is an inevitable loss of the underlying darkness of the scenario, a lack of mental space to reflect on the eerie goings-on in the state institution, where abuse, and worse, of patients is a daily reality. Russell Beale is the ex-Colonel, Roote, who runs the ministry-led hospital for the mentally-confused, the sort of place, as Michael Billington points out in his biography of Pinter, to which Stanley might have been carted at the end of The Birthday Party.
With something of the balletic grace of Oliver Hardy, Russell Beale minces and splutters, like an exasperated Captain Mainwaring grasping at an unattainable control of his own impulses and an institution running amok. His foil is prim John Simm as the insidious, ambitious subordinate Gibbs who, like the civil servant in Yes Minister surreptitiously steers events to his own ends. All the characters are larger than life, made larger still under Lloyd’s direction, from Harry Melling’s frantic sacrificial Lamb, who willingly submits himself to a programme of casual torture, to John Heffernan’s oleaginous and effete Lush and Indira Varma’s slinky Miss Cutts.
The strength of playing full out for comedy is a sleight of hand that conceals the slightly creaky structure of the play’s second half, which dragged somewhat in the Lyttleton revival six years ago. Here, Lloyd keeps things moving right through to the end, while retaining the utmost ambiguity. Hints are strong early in the play that Roote is the perpetrator of patient 6457’s death and the impregnation of 6459 (typical of the abuses practiced under his chaotic regime) but Gibbs’s overt stating of this, in the final scene with Christopher Timothy’s man from the ministry, points (perhaps) to him covering up his own misdemeanours.
In what is ostensibly a proscenium format, with a bank of onstage seats lending an in-the-round air, designer Soutra Gilmour has to represent five different locations on a single set, which she does very effectively. The final image of the hapless Lamb (again an ambiguous one as we never know his fate) tests the convention but deals with the problem neatly.
Although the play languished in Pinter’s bottom drawer for over twenty years, it’s had enough high profile productions in the last three decades that it can no longer be considered a rarity. Written shortly after the catastrophic reception of The Birthday Party, it’s now been fully re-assessed and this West End run should further establish it as part of the canon of regularly-revived works.