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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE HOTHOUSE
at the Trafalgar Studios

DARK WIT
By MATT WOLF

  John Heffernan and Simon Russell Beale/ Ph: Johan Persson

For a play that languished unperformed for more than three decades after Harold Pinter wrote it in 1958, The Hothouse is certainly making up for lost time – on the London stage, at least. Pinter himself brought his unique vocal sonority to a 1995 revival at what is now the Harold Pinter Theatre, taking the defining role for himself, and director Ian Rickson chose this blackest of comedies as his first venture after stepping down from the Royal Court Theatre. Rickson’s version, with Stephen Moore starring and a delicious Lia Williams in the lone female part, ran at the National Theatre a scant six years ago.
 
And here it is again, this time as the sophomore entry in director Jamie Lloyd’s season of work at Trafalgar Studios, following Lloyd’s Olivier-nominated Macbeth, with James McAvoy in scorching form. The same adjective could be here applied to Simon Russell Beale, who inherits the Pinter/Moore part of Roote, the onetime military man who presides over the unnamed institution where the play unfolds. Described variably as a “sanatorium” and “rest home,” the dwelling would seem to be a place given over to torture, with Pinter the playwright experimenting with a world of state-controlled barbarism to which he would return more explicitly in the later “political” period of the Nobel laureate's singular career.
 
That said, Russell Beale still seems to have at least one foot up the road in Michael Grandage’s since-closed revival of Privates on Parade, in which one of Britain’s finest and most genuinely versatile performers vamped it up this past winter as a drag artiste for whom life itself were a performance. Roote is too, well, rooted in strict societal codes of conduct ever to cross-dress, but Russell Beale brings to his current role a bug-eyed, campy avidity that is not a little distracting, and after a while one begins to wonder whether he and Lloyd might trust the audience to take the play on its own balefully comic (and also chilling) terms, rather than turning it into a quasi-vaudeville in order to solidify its perch in a highly competitive West End.
 
The characters constitute a potpourri of monosyllables: a male amalgam spiced up only by the presence of Indira Varma as the slinky Miss Cutts, who isn’t the only one to come at the material as if Pinter had suddenly morphed into Joe Orton. (Perhaps Lloyd should have directed What the Butler Saw instead?) The top-billed John Simm nicely underplays the bespectacled underling, Gibbs, who gets enmeshed in a narrative that makes much of patients who exist as nothing more than a set of numbers. And Harry Melling writhes (a bit overenthusiastically for my taste) as the aptly named Lamb, who is indeed led to the slaughter in time for the cruelly revelatory curtain.
 
As was true with Macbeth, Lloyd bisects the playing space so that several rows of audience members are left looking at the actors’ backs, and the configuration may account for one’s feeling that Russell Beale in particular is playing to a non-existent gallery. I have nothing against the notion of The Hothouse containing within it a funhouse, since Pinter’s work is rife with often subversive wit. But the laughs at some point ought to come to a thudding and purposeful halt. Not this time, I’m afraid. Though at this rate, give the play another six years, and we’ll be assessing it once over – and anew.

 


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