Harold Pinter’s rarely performed 1958 play The Hothouse, is a brilliantly unsettling comic gem. The wide Lyttleton stage is filled with an industrial scale set consisting of a dilapidated office replete with dowdy late 1950’s furniture, an eerie white tiled stairwell and a soundproofed room above, perfectly conjured by designer Hildegard Bechtler. Ian Rickson, in his first job after leaving helm at the Royal Court, deftly directs Pinter’s second play for ever ounce of menace and dark comedy it possesses. He is helped by a first class cast, led by Stephen Moore as Roote, the head of a strange and mysterious institution, somewhere between a prison and a hospital (a sinister ‘rest home’ as one of the staff puts it). Moore brings out the absurdities of the piece, by playing his upper crust ex-Colonel with a very straight bat, with his orders from ‘the ministry’, but seemingly nothing of any use to do (a sort of administrative hell). Finbar Lynch gives a pitch perfect performance as his cold, distant and dangerous second in command. But my acting laurels ultimately go to the sublime Paul Ritter as Lush, an inquiring staff member at the elliptical establishment. I have never seen Ritter give anything less that a fabulous performance, and his extraordinarily dry yet sincerely arch Lush is no exception.
The play is simply about the running of this horrible institution (and the lunatic power of oppressive bureaucracy), with the mystery of one dead patient and another who has just produced a baby boy added into the mix (though we don’t see the patients, all referred to by number and not name, we do hear haunting cries and slamming doors occasionally). As often with Pinter there is a palpable sense of menace throughout, and sinister, unexplained events occur (but I won’t spoil the end, which is not totally unexpected, the characters themselves predict the end in a way). There is also a strange sexual fascination, with Miss Cutts (Lia Williams) conducting an affair with at least two of the male staff, plus the mystery of the baby perhaps produced by rape or an affair with one of the staff (the idea that the inmates possibly mentally ill, perhaps political detainees, are being abused/used by the staff is particularly horrifying when you hold it apart from the general menace of the play).
Pinter is a master at showing us our own discomfort, distorting the world into the horrible place just beyond our imagination, but very recognisable. This is a brutally funny play, I defy anyone to sit through it and not laugh heartily, but the very fact that such a dark piece can result in hilarity is interesting itself.