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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Hothouse
Lyttelton Theatre       Summer 2007

Even Shakespeare has a couple of plays that no one would do today if they didn't have his name on them, and I doubt very much if the National Theatre would be producing The Hothouse if it were not by Harold Pinter

Pinter wrote The Hothouse in 1958 but shelved it as a failure until 1980, when he reread it, polished it up a bit, and directed its first production. Anything he writes is of interest, but The Hothouse remains a bunch of half-ideas and half-scenes in search of a play.

The play is set in a mental institution whose staff are so wrapped up in their own neuroses, their in-house politicking and their complex sex lives that they have very little time or energy left over for their patients.

And right away you might be able to spot a problem Pinter never solves - whether he wants this play to be a psychological drama, a political allegory, an angry satire or an Ortonesque farce. And so, from scene to scene, or minute to minute, it switches back and forth from one mode to another.

An opening scene between the dim-witted director and his much sharper aide is pure satire. One in which another staff member rattles off in a flourish of verbal dexterity the account of how he talked rings around a befuddled visitor could make Tom Stoppard envious.

The nightmarish interrogation of one poor schnook plays like a comic take-off on similar scenes in Pinter's own Birthday Party and Caretaker, and a parody of the Queen's Christmas Speech would have Joe Orton giggling at its bad taste.

But in that context, what are we to do with the rather dark jockeying for power among the senior staff, or the one female staff member, who literally writhes on the floor in a moment of sexual frustration, or the account of an offstage massacre by escaping patients?

Ian Rickson directs this revival with an unsteady hand, unable to bridge over the gaps in tone and style. Generally speaking, the comic scenes work best, though even they are uneven.

Stephen Moore does a good comic turn as the fuzzy-headed director, but his scenes are all noticeably rhythmless and ambling when they should have more snap. Paul Ritter turns that Stoppardian aria into a tour de force that generates spontaneous applause.

Finbar Lynch is appropriately sinister as the boss's aide, but Lia Williams can do nothing to make sense out of the woman who is Ruth from The Homecoming one moment and unhappy sex slave the next.

Even Shakespeare nods, and this one is strictly for Pinter specialists looking to fill a gap in their experience of his Complete Works.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Hothouse - National Theatre 2007

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