Something rather strange and even a little nightmarish is taking place at the Trafalgar Studios. Cigars are exploding, cakes are being thrown and mysterious experiments are taking place with the madness led by the very people who are meant to be in control.
This is Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse, set in an institution attractively – and misleadingly – described as a “rest home”, where the whispered screams and maniacal laughter of the occupants occasionally reach the staff room where Pinter’s grotesque characters reside.
In charge is Simon Russell Beale’s Roote, a rambling, forgetful, red-faced dictator, who wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Dad’s Army. Surrounding him are a conniving and erratic group of staff set upon undermining his blustering authority from John Simm’s sinister Gibbs to Indira Varma’s oversexed mistress Miss Cutts and John Heffernan’s provocative Lush.
With the ambiguous residents referred to by numbers rather than names, casual abuses of power thrown carelessly into conversation – 6459 has unexpectedly given birth in their care while 6457 has mysteriously died – impressionable members of staff willing to test a terrifying-looking electric chair and a total lack of professionalism in all situations, there’s not a lot to like about this bunch. But amongst the horror of the dilapidated institution – created with retro, faded authenticity by designer Soutra Gilmour – where human rights are actively mocked, Pinter finds comedy that is at once hilarious and uncomfortably upsetting.
With the characters constantly, in the words of Roote, “taking the wee wee” out of one another, and prone to bipolar mood swings, Pinter’s dialogue is a tireless, exhausting stream of fits of rage, tricksy word play and the occasional whim of faux politeness and pleasantries.
Each character must be an actor’s dream to play with every inhabitant of this bizarre staff tinged with the absurd. Russell Beale leads the pack with a frantic, accomplished performance that flits from worked up frustration to bashful self-congratulation as his sanity cracks before us, while Simm’s contrastingly unsettling composed Gibbs is chillingly cold with his unfeeling cut-glass accent and unshakeable persona.
Christopher Timothy earns the only possible sympathy in the play as the over sincere Lamb who is the sole man immune to Miss Cutts’ doe-eyed manipulative charms as she languishes around the set in an attempt to seduce one and all.
Manic, surreal and exhausting, The Hothouse may be hilarious but at its core Pinter’s work is a frightening look at humanity’s abusive power play with those more vulnerable than themselves, a theme that has lost none of its relevance in the 50 years since its premiere.