The plants you find in hothouses are often exotic, bizarre and even disturbing, and so it is with Harold Pinter’s play of the same name. Written in 1958, but shoved in a drawer until 1980, this pitch-black satire about a sinister medical institution is hard to pin down (Joe Orton perhaps comes nearest) and surprising in its enthusiasm for sheer knockabout comedy. But it is in its slipperiness and silliness that its intrigue resides. Simon Russell Beale, leading the cast, comes to Jamie Lloyd’s excellent revival having played Stalin in a fantastical comedy about Bulgakov: surrealism perhaps best expresses the blend of horror and absurdity so characteristic of totalitarian rule. And while The Hothouse foreshadows the use of psychiatric torture to stifle dissidents in later regimes, it was written too in the shadow of the second world war. Everyone knew to what cruel excesses humans could sink when given permission by “following orders”.
The hothouse of the title, then, is an undefined hospital where “patients” are sent for “rest”. We never see any patients, though we occasionally hear distressing wails in the distance and the horrifying experiments conducted on a rookie member of staff suggest that electric shocks and psychological torment are routine. But Pinter keeps us guessing at the exact nature of the place, focusing instead on absurd power struggles between the senior staff. The effect, delivered with masses of top-spin in Lloyd’s exuberantly funny staging, is to make you laugh while feeling deeply uncomfortable for doing so.
In places, it does feel like an early play. There’s a degree of strain in it, as if Pinter were labouring rather too hard to disconcert you. But it’s superbly delivered here as Lloyd and his cast shrewdly take classic British comedy types and give them a sinister, greenish hue. Russell Beale, as the bizarrely foggy ex-colonel running the show, is a disturbing, comic joy. Channelling British comedy greats Ronnie Barker and Arthur Lowe as Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army, he thunders and blusters as he attempts to cover up his peculiar vagueness about serious malpractice, but turns suddenly misty-eyed when given a Christmas gift. He is beautifully complemented by pitch-perfect performances from John Simm as a creepily punctilious executive and John Heffernan as his more unctuous colleague. There’s fine work too from Indira Varma as an unhinged, sex-mad nurse and Harry Melling as a frantic-to-please newcomer ominously called Lamb. Clever, caustic carry-on: it’s like a comic seaside postcard written in poisonous ink.