Set on Christmas Day in a "rest home" of unspecified purpose, The Hothouse opens as panicky former colonel Roote is informed by his watchful, ambitious right hand man Gibbs that one of their wards has given birth and another has been killed.
While the exchange sets the plot in motion and establishes the play’s absurdist tone, the scene’s key function is hidden in bits of comic business where Roote confuses the patients, who are referred to only as 6459 and 6457. It takes the length of the play to demonstrate how exactly, but by being reduced to abstract numbers – whose features can’t even be accurately described by Roote – these vulnerable humans are subject to immense abuse.
Written by Harold Pinter in 1958 but not staged until his own self-starring production in 1980, The Hothouse depicts how easy it is for tyranny to fester in places where there is an imbalance of power, making this argument through intentionally jarring swings between comedy and malevolence. While director Jamie Lloyd’s production leans more heavily on Pinter’s often-unappreciated comic voice than the National Theatre’s recent 2007 revival, this emphasis only serves to make the tonal lurches more affecting, as noise and red lights are employed to torturous and disruptive effect.
As Roote, a perpetually unravelling, comically fastidious boss who could anchor a 1970s sitcom, Simon Russell Beale is excellent, flailing wildly as he is consumed by the rottenness at the core of the institution and himself. Russell Beale’s portrayal is the production’s clearest embodiment of Pinter’s bifurcated approach, as the character’s mania is played both for laughs and to unsettle, often within the same scene. John Simm – a fine actor most notable for his impeccable taste in projects and collaborators – is similarly effective in a more reactive but equally rich performance. As the counterbalance to Roote’s wound-up fervor, Gibbs reminds the audience of how corruption is just as at home in slick professionalism as it is within lunacy.
Photo: Clive Rowe (Tubb) and The Cast of The Hothouse. (Johan Persson)
Produced as part of Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Transformed season at Trafalgar Studios, The Hothouse is a blackly funny warning about the dangers of institutional care. Coming after a flurry of recent care home scandals and similar abuses the play is strikingly relevant, but what is most chilling is the notion that it could be staged at any point in the future and still be apt.
The Hothouse runs at Trafalgar Studios until 3rd August.