The Hothouse: You Don’t Have To Be Crazy To Work Here, But It Helps

John Simm and Indira Varma in The Hothouse / photo by Johan Persson

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.

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  • Dean Nicholas

    I might go and see this. Amazingly, for somebody so dismissive of theatre nowadays, I very nearly performed in a production of this when I was about 18. I was playing Gibbs (played here I think by Simm). We had to cancel it about a fortnight before the first performance as the small theatre went bust.

    • Rachel Holdsworth

      Yup, John Simm is Gibbs (and excellent in all shades of the character). I don’t want to dismiss your small theatre company, but I suspect this will be better.

  • The Magic Loogie

    I assume, by “big name actors,” you’re speaking about theater actors specifically. Otherwise, John Simm’s name should be in that first paragraph. Actually, given his stellar performances in Elling, Speaking in Tongues, Hamlet, Betrayal, and now The Hothouse, perhaps Mr. Simm belongs in that first paragraph.

    • Rachel Holdsworth

      Yep, I’m talking about theatre grandees. And in the context of this play, John Simm is good but Simon Russell Beale knocks him out of the park – as he, and Roger Allam, Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester tend to do. (I saw Speaking in Tongues; it was alright.)

      • The Magic Loogie

        Mr. Simm’s challenge was to project the darkness of the situation with restrained menace while Beale careened around the stage. Perhaps it’s a question of preference. There aer people who confuse eye-popping and flailing with great acting.

        It’s a shame you weren’t in the audience for Elling or Sheffield’s Hamlet. Otherwise, you would more likely agree that Mr. Simm’s name should be listed with your “theatre grandees.”