Lyttelton Theatre in the National Theatre, until Sept 4. Director: Ian Rickson. Cast includes Stephen Moore, Finbar Lynch, Leo Bill, Lia Williams, Paul Ritter
The Hothouse, which is currently previewing in the National Theatre, is one of Pinters earliest plays but has been sitting in a drawer for 20-odd years until performed in 1980 for the first time. It has been called “Pinter’s funniest play” – but knowing Pinter one shouldn’t expect lots of thigh-slapping humour. The fun is here as sharp as the knives that are drawn in one scene. It is set in a sanatorium on a particular warm Christmas Day, “when the snow has turned to slush”. The place is run by the autocratic and forgetful Roote and his steely assistant Gibbs who refer to their patients not with names but with numbers. Recently, a patient has died and another has given birth and Gibbs is asked to find the father. His unique measures of interrogation set off a chain of events that turn from Kafkaesque absurdity to surrealistic apocalypse.
Ian Rickson – in his first production after leaving as Artistic Director of the Royal Court – sets the play firmly in the period when it was written. There are ill-fitting suits, shell-rimmed glasses and those strange pointy bras that women were wearing back then. Hildegard Bechtler’s wonderful set manages to evoke the 50’s in all their functionality and shabbiness down to the smallest detail. And the acting is simply marvellous. Finbar Lynch as Gibbs is the embodiment of the ambitious and deviant bureaucrat who can hardly hide his contempt for his ineffecient boss. Paul Ritter as the insolent Lush is a comic delight and Leo Bill as the victimized Lamb proves once more what a subtle and moving actor he is. Stephen Moore’s performance as Roote was seriously impaired in the preview I saw by the fact that he forgot several of his lines and had to be helped by the audible whisper of the prompter. Each time it happened, the audience draw in their breath: would he or wouldn’t he remember the lines? Fortunately as the play progressed, he turned into top form. But the real star is the language and the unexpected gags. Turning from sarcastic dialogue to homeopathic doses of slapstick this play is unashamedly funny. When Lush refuses the Christmas cake he is offered, Roote retorts “You’ve insulted me, You’ve insulted the cook, and you’ve insulted Jesus Christ”.
Certainly not Pinters most polished play and a bit flagging in the second half but I had a wonderful evening. Highly recommended. A quick note on the seating: try to avoid the first few rows, especially on the right hand side of the auditorium, as it is impossible to see what goes on in the interrogation room on top of the stage.