The Hothouse: Pinter made popular

Jamie Lloyd’s revival of Pinter’s black sheep play is accessible for luvvie and layman alike

Christian Butler

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While The Birthday Party is today considered a modern theatrical classic, when it was first performed in 1958 it was little more than a commercial failure. A disappointed Harold Pinter put his follow-up, The Hothouse, into a drawer where it remained until it was finally produced 22 years later. Resembling the ‘comedies of menace’ from the start of his career, but also bearing the overt politics of his later plays, The Hothouse has always been the black sheep of his works.

A revival of the play starring Simon Russell Beale and John Simm is currently running at Trafalgar Studios. The theatre is an intimate space with less than 400 seats, perfect for the enclosed spaces that form the setting of every Pinter play.

The Hothouse is set in a decidedly ‘Pinteresque’ institution in that we never see any of the patients, nor discover why they’re incarcerated. The show consists of a minimal plot in which the institution’s staff investigate how one of their patients became pregnant, and another got killed. The story is secondary to the interrelations between the characters, who themselves are used to communicate the inevitable corruption within any bureaucracy.

Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Mr Roote, the head of the institution, is a tour de force. Reminiscent of Basil Fawlty, Russell Beale plays Roote as a bumbling idiot with excruciating panache. In contrast, John Simm’s performance is deliciously subtle as the highest ranked of Roote’s subordinates, exuding a cold menace behind the exterior of the most detached character in the play.

In a move to make the play more enjoyable to a casual audience, director Jamie Lloyd highlights its innate comedy. While the exaggerated performances can be overwhelming, especially when the front row is mere feet away from the actors, by squeezing laughter out of every line possible, the darker moments of the play are rendered all the more shocking. Likewise, when the mood again lightens, the jokes have all the more bite.

Everything, from the heavily airbrushed publicity photos to the casting of TV’s own John Simm, suggests a concerted effort to make The Hothouse more palatable to a mainstream audience. But by mixing broad comedy with the chaos at the heart of the piece, Jamie Lloyd has created a layered evening at the theatre, sure to enthral thespians and fans of Life on Mars alike.

Christian Butler is a writer and musician based in London.

The Hothouse is playing until 3 August at Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2DY . To book visit The Hothouse website here.

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