The Hot House
By Harold Pinter
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Trafalgar Transformed Season
Trafalgar One Studio
Saturday 1st June 2013 matinee
See also Macbeth, directed by Jamie Lloyd in the same Trafalgar Transformed season. The Trafalgar Transformed means a few rows of audience sitting at the rear of the stage behind the actors, who have to pay lip service to including them by turning to them, but only 5 to 10% of the time.
Harold Pinter wrote The Hot House in 1958, and put it away in a drawer. He pulled it out twenty-two years later in 1980. The play’s problem in 1958 was that it was five to ten years ahead of its time, predicting the satire boom, and pre-dating the plays of Joe Orton, Peter Barnes and John Antrobus. It’s set in a rest home / sanatorium run by “The ministry” and is a place which apparently is used by the state apparatus to “disappear” people, and imprisonment and torture are the order of the day. Simon Russell Beale plays the forgetful director of the institute, an ex-colonel. John Simm plays his creepy ice-cold executive officer.
Roote & Gibbs
The adverts describe Simon Russell-Beale’s performance as a tour de force, courtesy of The Daily Telegraph, and John Simm as flawless, courtesy of The Guardian. That’s spot on, though a tour de force is understatement. In a matter of months we have seen Simon Russell-Beale in Timon of Athens and Privates On Parade, and here he takes on a completely different role and is magnificently hilarious. At the beginning (fed superbly by John Simm), Russell-Beale has to create the entire atmosphere of the play as Roote, the boss, and does. John Simm’s role as Gibbs is indeed flawless, but the part which would have been more fun to do is Lush, played by John Hefferman. Lush has a monologue about a mother trying to visit an inmate who is already dead, and has the scene with Roote when Roote opens his gift of Christmas cake … the play takes place on Christmas Day. Twas Christmas Day in The Workhouse, indeed. The scene with whisky and cake is the centrepiece of the play, accelerated even higher when Gibbs arrives on the scene.
The two big names dominate the programme and posters, but there are five great parts in the play. Add Indira Varma, as Miss Cutts, and Harry Melling as Lamb, the new arrival (he’s only been there a year, but never met Roote, his boss) who gets tortured. The two lesser roles are Clive Rowe as the caretaker (from The Ladykillers) and a big surprise, Christopher Timothy (It Shouldn’t Happen To A Vet) as Lobb, the ministry official at the end.
I read several reviews and saw that you hear the screams of tortured inmates off stage during the play. I think not. You hear the same ghostly howling and hollow footsteps at three points, not continually. And it’s more ghostly than current. Maybe the stage directions tell us you hear tortured inmates. If so, it didn’t come across to us as that.
Roote & Lush
The names say it all about the play: Roote (of all evil), Lamb (to the slaughter), Miss Cutts (your balls off), Lush (drunken and slightly limp-wristed). Subtle it’s not, which is why, while it was ten years ahead of its time in 1958, it was already a little late for the satirical / absurd era by 1980 when Pinter revived it and produced it. Pinter should have dusted it off somewhere in the middle. A stunning play for 1971 or 1972. Those posters say “Kafka meets Monty Python” quoting The Daily Telegraph again. While the play’s humour has a broad brush, it’s far more subtle than Monty Python. I was addicted to the Flying Circus first time around, even enjoyed the first one or two repeats, but few TV programmes have aged so badly. Pinter’s dialogue is at its usual high standard, and while the play uses absurd elements, it never descends to the silliness now apparent in Monty Python.
Back to other reviews: comparing Russell-Beale’s portrayal of Roote with Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army is a popular theme. We thought it more Ronnie Barker, but going back, Dad’s Army was running at the same time as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and while Monty Python now creaks amateurishly rather than resonates on screen, Dad’s Army is still getting prime-time re-runs. The original Captain Mainwaring, Arthur Lowe, was treading much the same boards in 1950s English repertory theatre as the young Harold Pinter, and both knew “the crusty colonel role.” Pinter was of course writing years before Dad’s Army. I had to check Pinter’s repertory career (as David Baron), and between March and September 1956, he acted in twenty different plays at the Palace Court Theatre in Bournemouth, at one new play a week. They did seem to alternate ‘a lead role’ one week with ‘a role’ the next, but even so that sort of theatrical training has been unavailable for years. Local theatre lore has it that he was stage manager as well. Pinter always knows what works, and was writing The Hot House fresh from intensive stage work.
Gibbs & Miss Cutts
I can readily see the appeal of Roote, a fabulous role for an actor, with great lines, accentuated by Russell-Beale’s impeccable pausing, facial reactions and body language. He reveals so much back-story between the words. The uptight role is a natural for John Simm, who we saw in Elling (“A Norwegian comedy”) in the same theatre a few years ago.
Apart from Roote, it’s all a bit two-dimensional, which is probably another influence of Pinter’s intensive work in rep at the time. Indira Varma could not be better or sexier of funnier in the part, but the part is a stereotype, as is the nerdy lad Lamb, and the man from the ministry. Neither of us thought it a “great play” (in inverted commas) but it is a highly-enjoyable play with strong performances by every actor, and it is taut and economic.
Gibb, Roote, Lush
PROGRAMME & PRICE
£5, compared to £3 for a better programme at the National Theatre six days ago. The essay on “Rights and Freedom” tells us that torture is A BAD THING. I knew that. “Pinter and Politics” is dull. It’s enlivened by Pinter’s excellent piece on getting thrown out of the US Embassy in Turkey with Arthur Miller (he had mentioned torture to the ambassador), but a programme should mention the interval and perhaps the length. It didn’t. Both acts are 45 minutes with a 15 minute interval, so I just remedied that. A note on production concept would be nice.
It’s a short play, and the over-priced tickets cost more than the National with four times as many actors running twice the time six days ago. It was also a surprise to see so many empty seats (25%?) after five or six packed to the doors matinees in London. I wonder if price is a factor.
We swore we’d never visit The Trafalgar Studios again because of the appalling toilets, male and female, but if they keep having actors as good as John McAvoy, Lisa Dillon (in Studio Two at the same time), Simon Russell-Beale and John Simm we’ll have to live with them.