The Hothouse

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The Hothouse is a comedy about torture and interrogation. This pacy new production does well to highlight the hilarity of Harold Pinter's 1958 play, which effortlessly combines the sinister with the silly.

While it may seem bizarre in a play with such weighty subject matter, the actors seem to borrow their best moves from some classic British sitcoms as they send up government bureaucracy. While this over the top production may occasionally become a bit more Are You Being Served? than Yes, Minister, the cast generally do justice to this weird and wonderful play.

The Hothouse is a play that almost didn't see the light of day. Having written it in 1958, Pinter left the manuscript gathering dust until 1980. But it's easy to imagine why he decided to dust it off - In the 1980s Pinter entered a period of intense political activism, infuriated by the horrors of US foreign policy abroad and Thatcher's policies at home.

The darker moments of The Hothouse foreshadow One for the Road, first performed in 1984, which unflinchingly depicts a torturer toying with his victims. Yet The Hothouse remains a quirky black comedy, with scenes reminiscent of the music hall buffoonery that was a big early influence on Pinter.

Roote, an ex-army corporal, seems to be rapidly losing control of the institution he is tasked to manage. One of the patients has apparently given birth and another has died. Inveterate comic actor Simon Russell Beale plays Roote as a kind of Captain Mainwaring on speed, while John Simm, best known for roles in Doctor Who and Life on Mars, plays Gibbs, his pedantic assistant. The laughs come thick and fast as these two reel off their non-stop nonsensical patter.

The actors playing the other institution staff - the infantile Lamb, the sycophantic Lush and the sexually aggressive sadist Miss Cutts - ham it up even more.
As always with Pinter, the social and political themes are woven into the characters' most personal interactions. Miss Cutts mockingly questions Roote's masculinity, and when she and Gibbs interrogate Lamb, they're not trying to sniff out official secrets - instead they pry into his feelings and uncover his most private insecurities.

Pinter's attack on bureaucracy is painted in broad brush strokes, but he has a keen ear for the modern state's desire to mould compliant subjects by prying into our feelings, our sex lives, our sense of regret and insignificance.

On the whole, this production brings out the light of the play more coherently than the dark. Nonetheless, it's great to see Pinter played for laughs for a change.

The Hothouse is at Trafalgar Studios, London, until 3 August