Review – The Hothouse, Trafalgar Studios / This House, National Theatre

Thursday 16 May 2013

hothouseWe are of course far too indolent to check, but this is possibly our first conjoined review.

It’s a time thing really. We’re all behind, but in our defence there are parallels between these plays: both are “house”-titled, have on-stage, set-specific audience seating and are boisterously over-the-top comedic satires set in institutions run by dangerously potty people.

The Hothouse features John Simm, Simon Russell Beale, Indira Varma, John Heffernan, Clive Rowe and Christopher Timothy and the aforementioned chance to be up there with them. You’d be forgiven for assuming Andrew would have been there wouldn’t you?

Well, he wasn’t. For these players are appearing (Rowe and Timothy dropping by for about 5 minutes a piece as it happens – the extravagance!) in a piece by Mr Pinter. Didn’t Phil remember that he missed the first act when they saw it at the National and Andrew wanted to miss the second act? Phil’s suggested theatrical sortie produced a wintery response “Couldn’t they have been in something good?”

Happily they are in something good. No doubt even better if you don’t watch it from the stage where much time is spent time studying the trichological grooming of backs of heads. With less than 10% of your audience on stage, you’re going to act to the front aren’t you? Duh. Should have thought of that, although the actors and director Jamie Lloyd have tried their best to not leave their ‘extras’ out.

Were we on-stagers inmates in the institution in which this piece is set? The ticket advises “Please note that this seat is part of the on-stage experience”, an experience where one is so close to the cast we can share their DNA. Expectorate must be expected.

This is billed as a “macabre tragicomedy”. The programmes are £5. Which may not be tragic, but is certainly comedic. Phil was set to purchase one at the bar before balking at the price. A man in the row behind him gasped at the cost too, was lent one by an usher and flicked through it before returning it. At least the Trafalgar Studios are having a laugh. Fortunately, so it seemed, were most of the audience and not just at the programme price, nor at the play’s patients (who are are referred to by numbers, but do not appear) of this “rest home”, but at the staff, for it is the lunatics who are running the asylum.

None more so that SRB’s Dr Roote who is in charge. An inmate has died, another has given birth as a result of rape, his staff are undermining him, one of them – Gibbs (Simm) – is involved with Roote’s mistress (Varma) and it is Christmas and he has yet to receive a single present, no wonder he’s in a something of a state.

Many have already noted that SRB’s performance has hints of Captain Mainwaring and that the play owes a lot to Joe Orton (although it pre-dates his work). It would be impolite not to agree. Lloyd has directed it to rip along as a farce in 1 hour and 50 minutes (including interval) and the cast play it to the hilt and beyond. It’s Pinter, but not as we know it. Even Andrew might have approved (“unlikely”- Andrew).

SRB is compellingly hilarious, full of absurd puffed-up bluster; as out of control as his establishment. Heffernan is a brilliant dandyish loose-jointed Lush spewing Christmas cake spectacularly. Varma vamps suggestively, exercising full use of her twin-peaked assets and Simm is creepily menacing in his calm efficiency. Someone from Harry Potter, Harry Melling, plays Lamb as a lamb to the slaughter who volunteers for experimental treatment that is more like torture whilst wearing a rather fetching period tank top. Hopefully we will see them back in fashion again once the latest The Great Gatsby is released (as was the case after the 1974 Robert Redford version – Phil wore them back then, Andrew never stopped wearing his).

And there’s an eye to detail on Soutra Gilmour‘s white paint-peeling set. You’d have to sit in the front row of the stage seating (we were upgraded from the back row of stage seats) to spot a paperback of Kafka’s The Castle on top of a pile of books. Of course it had to be appropriate and a quick trawl through Wiki confirms themes of alienation, bureaucracy, fighting the system etc.

If the whole play seems occasionally bitty the flaws are papered over by riotous comic turns that practically makes the joins invisible.

This_HouseJames Graham‘s This House ends its second run at the National this today (with a live transmission to cinemas). We caught it last week. Baz Bamigboye’s news of a transfer to the Aldwych Theatre has been denied by its director Jeremy Herrin apparently.

It is set in the Halls of Westminster between 1974 and 1979 when Labour was in power with a hung parliament and Chief Whips in overdrive to whip up MPs to vote on their respective sides. The tactics used are as ruthless as they are hilarious.

And even if we do not see Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and Thatcher (they are already detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure at the Gielgud) where else can you see John Stonehouse (Andrew Havill) unsuccessfully faking his own death, Michael Heseltine (Matthew Pidgeon) brandishing the Commons’ mace and Norman St John-Stevas (Pidgeon again) being very Norman St John-Stevas portrayed on a London stage? You have to be of an age to remember these events. Sadly we are of that age.

Faking one’s own death seems like tempting providence since there was a high mortality rate among MPs at this time. No wonder the clock in the Elizabeth Tower stopped during this government and it offers the writer a handy metaphor.

We’re wondering why we didn’t see it at the Cottesloe originally. The Whingers’ administrator must have been slacking. But the Olivier staging comes with some of the audience taking up seats on either sides of the House of Commons which are frequently swivelled from facing each other to facing front; it’s the National’s closest thing to a thrill ride. Phil hadn’t seen so much audience movement since he twirled on the stage revolve at Cats (we do not count the interval departures during Damned by Despair).

Now why didn’t we book to watch this one from the stage? Some of the audience even took part in the Commons’ votes. Whether they were instructed to do so or not we cannot be sure, but they did. Perhaps they were as engrossed as us. We’d have raised our hands happily and voted “Aye”.

At nearly 3 hours it’s overlong and requires some cutting. The cast which includes Phil Daniels, Reece Dinsdale, Lauren O’Neil, Julian Wadham and Charles Edwards (particularly good and with hair to rival Heseltine’s) are excellent, but it’s a huge ensemble which probably needs trimming too to make a deserved transfer economical.

No need to whip us for our vote.

Rating (for both plays)


4 Responses to “Review – The Hothouse, Trafalgar Studios / This House, National Theatre”

  1. Sandown Says:

    The Hothouse was written in 1958, but first produced in 1980 at the old Hampstead Theatre. Harold Pinter was in the audience on the night I saw it, and I do not recall any laughter, just a few grim chuckles.

    The play was intended to be taken seriously, as a companion piece to The Birthday Party (also written in 1958). In that play, the victim character is verbally broken down by two thugs from the criminal underworld. In The Hothouse, the same process is carried out by Establishment authority figures.

    From the early 1980’s onwards, Pinter pursued a line of leftist paranoia about The System, with increasing absurdity. Or as one critic put it: “He descended into mad political ranting.”

    The present director was undoubtedly sensible to revive it as a farce

  2. Sandown Says:

    P.S. I should have added to the above that the original production of The Hothouse was directed by the author.

  3. John Carter Says:

    Re prog price – TFR, Phil, TFR! I staged a sit-down protest in the foyer but was dragged off to an undergrd cell and subjected to brainshocks leaving me incapable of doing anything except post online.

  4. Gary Morgan Says:

    The revival at the Lyttleton about five years before with Stephen Moore, Lia Williams, Leo Bill and the brilliant Finbarr Lynch was cooler, more sinister and altogether superior seems to have been overlooked.
    It was less frantic, Lloyd’s production far less assured though I cannot remember who directed the NT’s version.

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