"The Hothouse" is one of Harold Pinter’s earliest plays, written in 1958, while still in his 20’s, but shelved by the playwright without production until 1980.
Pinter’s early dramatic work was often described as “comedy of menace” – comic, often quite funny, but just as often turning darker and more sinister as his plays progressed.
By 1979, when he revised "The Hothouse" for its premiere production, he had become much more of a political activist, speaking out against oppression both as a person and in his dramatic work. It was this aspect of his life and life’s work which earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005.
"The Hothouse" is almost archtypical of Pinter's early work. It is set in a rest home, in England, on Christmas Day. Only the staff and understaff have names. The patients are simply numbers. The play centers on the dysfunctional, often comic, reactions of the staff to the unexplained death, an apparent murder, of patient 6457 and the equally murky apparent rape, impregnation and subsequent delivery of a male child by patient 6459.
The play ends with – well, I won’t give that away. Suffice it to say, "The Hothouse" is an excellent example of Pinter’s “comedy of menace”. Sight gags, comic lines and situations abound even as the play turns darker. It is the essence of early Pinter.
This West End Players Guild production is a delight – if you can call experiencing Pinter a delight. I do, but I admit, I’m a bit weird.
First and foremost, the acting is top notch. Each character is unique, distinct, and wonderfully played with nuance of movement, expression – vocal and physical – and accent. I want to call out, in particular, Robert Ashton, who plays Roote, the head of the institution, for his tremendous energy throughout. I must also mention every member of the cast for, while the other parts are not as ever-present as Ashton’s, each was very well performed: Zach Wachter as Gibbs, Pete Winfrey as Lamb, Elizabeth Graverman as Miss Cutts, Roger Erb as Lush, Nick Kelly as Tubb and, in a near-the-end cameo appearance, Matt Hanify as Lobb.
The names of Pinter’s characters give you clues to the less-than-subtle nature of this play: Roote, Lamb, Cutts, Lush, and so on.
As for set, lighting, costume, props - I need to first say I don’t especially care for the venue, the basement of the Union Avenue Christian Church. It reeks of institutional basement. It is quite intimate – and I do love that. But support columns potentially in the line of sight, a small proscenium stage hiding “up there”, sometimes used, sometimes not, relatively uncomfortable chairs on risers separated from the “lobby” by a folding wall ... all too “school-church-industrial” for my taste.
Within these confines, set design, lighting, scenic changes can be quite a challenge. Yet this is another kudo for West End’s production. Brian Peters’ set design used the space nicely, creatively, keeping much of the action on the floor, within reach of the audience, while allowing for scenic shifts between floor and proscenium with minimal disruption of stage hands scurrying about.
There were some very interesting and, in one or two cases, very dramatic lighting effects. Costumes by Beth Ashby were perfect. They bespoke of 1950’s England – an odd fashion era in a very staid corner of the world. And I must mention props, those oftentimes small but telling details which, combined with everything else before my eyes, lent an air of authenticity, reinforcing the comedy and the potential menace.
Somewhere in that weave of fine acting, fine costumes, intelligent set, lighting and props, is the hand of Suki Peters, an obviously gifted director. It is often hard to know, as an audience member, what to attribute to the director. Yet, when seemingly almost every detail of a production comes together, you know there was a single vision, a guiding hand, behind it all. Peters is that hand. There were so many moments of fine, fine acting and a consistency through out, it is hard to imagine a cast arriving at that point on their own. The same can be said for the integration of all the other elements of the play.
Of course, nothing is perfect. Every reviewer will find his or her own nits to pick. Here are a couple of mine.
Sound: Pre-show and intermission music was 50s American country. There was nothing offensive about that. And it was only used in pre-show and intermission so, arguably, wasn’t a part of the play. It just seemed so unrelated to the play and a bit distracting in that.
I would say the same about the sound used in scenic transitions. Some of it seemed distantly related at best to the play at hand. If I worked at it, I could imagine a relationship but I don’t want to work that hard when I go to the theatre.
Accent: There were brief moments in which almost every actor fell out of accent. I typically find that very distracting, much preferring no accent to an on-again, off-again one. However, these moments were so brief and infrequent as to almost be unnoticeable. Thus, I didn’t mind them, other than to take note of them. In fact, the cast is to be congratulated on the degree of their consistency.
Pinter, the playwright, can be a bit inaccessible for the general public. However, this production of "The Hothouse," I believe, opens the door to Pinter’s work very wide and gives an audience an excellent entree to the Pinter world view. It moves quickly with very few of the classic Pinter/Beckett pauses. It contains much humor, even some slapstick with an exploding cigar. And, of course, ends in a ... well, again, I don’t want to give that away. It is a Pinter play after all, and one very well done at that.