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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Hothouse
Trafalgar Studios  Summer  2013

The Hothouse is Harold Pinter trying to be Joe Orton. 

He doesn't quite pull it off (because, after all, he's Pinter and not Orton), but he comes pretty close. And director Jamie Lloyd makes the very clever decision in this sparkling revival to treat the play as if it were by Orton, focus on the fun parts, play down the more Pinteresque bits, and just have a comic ball. 

Of course Pinter first wrote this play in 1958, before even Orton had figured out how to be Orton. But he put it aside until 1980, rewrote it a bit, and directed the first production. 

Neither that one nor a 2007 National Theatre revival could make much sense out of the jumble of styles and intentions in the script. But Jamie Lloyd, by choosing one approach and sticking to it even when the text wanders off in other thematic directions, has produced the most successful version of the play ever, and one that is largely very very funny. 

We're in a mad madhouse where the staff are too busy chasing their various ambitions, keeping track of their confused sex lives or just trying to hang on to some sense of what's going on to do much good for the patients, or even keep them straight in their minds. 

The director can't tell one patient from another, even though he appears to have recently killed one and gotten another pregnant. His chief aide devotes most of his energy to manipulating the boss and undermining any of his competitors, the number three man is jockeying for the number two slot, and what appears to be the only woman on the staff lives in a constant state of sexual frustration even though she is evidently having it off with every one of the others. 

Somewhere in all of this Pinter tries to make some political and satiric comment about corruption in high places and the abuse of absolute power, but director Lloyd wisely ignores as much of that as possible, instead helping us enjoy the Ortonesque outrageousness of the comedy. 

Whether it's the scene in which the aide tries to help the boss grasp the idea that the dead man and the woman who has just given birth are two separate patients, or the one in which two of the staff put a third through an interrogation that plays like a wicked parody of Pinter's own Birthday Party (with the added fun of electric shocks), the emphasis is on the sort of over-the-top bad-taste humour that would be Orton's stock in trade. And it is fun. 

Playwright and director are largely assisted by a cast who clearly enjoy pulling out all the comic stops, most notably Simon Russell Beale as the befuddled boss. 

Widely acknowledged as the finest classical actor of his generation (and overdue for his knighthood), Simon Russell Beale has too infrequently let us see what a skilled comedian he is, but he is very much the driving comic engine of this production. 

He finds ever-fresh different ways to be befuddled, gets hilariously drunk and at one surreal moment attempts to imitate a woman shimmying the pelican tattoo on her stomach (Don't ask), and is a delight throughout and the tone-setter that helps carry the play over some of its slower – i.e., more Pinter than Orton – sections. 

John Simm and John Heffernan distinguish nicely between two different sorts of slimy ambitiousness, Indira Varma is the parody essence of a femme fatale, and Harry Melling comically bland as a guy so innocuous that he's not quite sure what he does and nobody is quite sure who he is. 

The Hothouse remains an uneven play because all that vaguely serious Pintery stuff keeps interfering with the fun. But by playing down the one and milking the other for all it's worth, this revival is the most successful ever and a real delight.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Hothouse - Trafalgar Studios 2013    

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