We really are spoiled for big-name actors giving wonderful performances in London right now. There's a twofer at the National with Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester in Othello; Roger Allam's delicately powerful Prospero at Shakespeare's Globe; and now add Simon Russell Beale as Harold Pinter's ineffectual institutional director in The Hothouse.
It's an odd one, this play. On the one hand, we're presented with an asylum run by the amoral, who have no problems lying, raping and inflicting electro-convulsive therapy while scapegoating a young staff member. Screams of other inmates occasionally echo around the auditorium and, while we're never told exactly what goes on in this run-down place where the never-seen patients have numbers instead of names, oversight by the shadowy Ministry implies that it houses political undesirables rather than the genuinely ill.
On the other hand, the dialogue is blackly comic and rat-a-tatted between the actors or machine-gunned out as long monologues in such a startlingly high-octane fashion that we briefly considered writing this review as an homage (but then we realised: no matter how much the style shapes the play, without Pinter's talent any attempt to replicate it would be unutterably shit). It's camp, it's laugh-out-loud, it's got a hilarious moment with a Christmas cake; and that's a bit uncomfortable. Deliberately so.
Simon Russell Beale is wonderful, boggle-eyed and desperate as the tinpot dictator watching his empire crumble. His scenes with John Simm are a masterclass in comedy timing and a joy to watch. (It's also good to be reminded that Simm is a dab-hand at the lighter stuff as well as bleak, relenting stuff like T'Village.) Actually, the whole ensemble are great and provide two WTF moments. The first towards the end, as we wondered what
James Herriot Christopher Timothy was doing in what's basically a five minute cameo; the second on leafing through the programme in the pub afterwards, discovering that the poor, naive, tortured staff member is none other than Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter. Kids grow up so quickly these days.
The Hothouse runs at Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, until 3 August. Tickets £24.50-£65. £10 day seats are available from the box office on the morning of each performance from 10am (get there early and be prepared to wait). Londonist paid to see this production.