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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National(Lyttelton)


  Finbar Lynch and Lia Williams

The failure of Harold Pinter's first produced play, The Birthday Party in 1958, clearly caused a crisis of confidence in the young playwright. So, rather than allow his second full-length play, The Hothouse, which bore certain similarities to The Birthday Party, to suffer the same fate, he banished it to his bottom drawer, where it languished unproduced, for the next 22 years.

Surprising, this, for, it happens to be his funniest play, and one of his most accessible, as audiences discovered when it was first staged at the Hampstead Theatre in 1980, and in a 1995 revival at the Chichester Festival.

It's latest incarnation at the National's Lyttelton conclusively demonstrates that the play continues to improve with age.

Its setting is a government mental institution, or &quotrest home" as it is euphemistically called. Running this Kafkasque facility from an airless, overheated office, is Roote (Stephen Moore), whose bureaucratic presence is at once menacing as well as hilariously funny. There are infiltrations of Wilde and Coward into the dialogue, as well as a loud pre-echo of Joe Orton. It's Christmas at the institution, but Roote's enjoyment of the occasion is marred by a double whammy: one of the patients (known by a number rather than a name) has died, another has just given birth to a baby.

When Roote's sinisterly efficient assistant Gibbs (Finbar Lynch is ordered to track down the father, suspicion falls on a young, fresh-faced underling called Lamb (Leo Bill) who, subjected to the kind of cruel, clinical interrogation practiced on dissidents in some corrupt South American regime, insists he is &quotvirgo intacto" and &quotalways has been from the word go."

Before Lamb can prove his innocence, the inmates revolt, break out of their cells and slaughter every member of staff, except the canny Gibbs, who now becomes the institution's new head. With this early intimation of state corruption - a theme Pinter would go on to explore in some of his later, shorter plays -as well as a variation on the well-worn notion that the personnel in an asylum are even more certifiable than the inmates - The Hothouse, like many of Pinter's plays, trades in incongruity, repetition, absurdity and, of course, incipient menace - both above and below the surface.

Under Ian Rickson's carefully nuanced direction, the cast, which also includes Lia Williams as femme fatale Miss Cutts, bed-partner to both Roote and Gibbs, and Paul Ritter as Lush, an insolent staff-member whose main talent lies in ruffling his boss, is terrific. The stand-out performances, though, are Stephen Moore as the intemperate Roote and Finbart Lynch as his equally creepy sidekick Gibbs.

Hildegarde Bechtler's cold, impersonal and harshly unforgiving set is as chilling as anything in this disturbing yet darkly satirical, hugely enjoyable comedy.


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