Written in 1958 just before The Caretaker, this early Pinter play is something of a curiosity. It comes after more familiar works like The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter, but it feels as though the great man hadn’t quite found his theatrical feet at this stage of his career and the piece trips and stumbles as a result.
It all starts rather well. This is maybe his most blatantly funny work but, as always with Pinter, the humour is a front for the dark machinations of power and its abuse. The crashing together of outright comedy with torture and manipulation, themes which run through the play like an ugly seam, leads to some excruciating episodes in the first half of the evening.
Set in some kind of asylum, where the unseen inmates are referred to by number not name, the play foreshadows Pinter’s later works, exploring oppression as an outcome of both a malign state and corrupt individuals.
It is Christmas Day and a child has been born while a patient has recently died. The situation is seen entirely through the eyes of the ruling class, the asylum director and his closest staff, and as we learn more about these two events there are strong hints of a history of institutional misconduct.
Ian Rickson’s production beautifully evokes a 1950s atmosphere and Hildegard Bechtler’s grim set has the feel of a labyrinth that stretches all the way to The Ministry, from whence authority and licence descend.
The cast is terrific. Stephen Moore as the guv’nor, “Colonel” Roote, is both funny and monstrous, a law unto himself whose bumbling facade gradually falls away to reveal his tyrannical side. His sidekick, Gibbs, who is prepared to go to any lengths to cover up his boss’s misdemeanours, while quietly and sinisterly carving his own path, is played with steely stillness by Finbar Lynch.
Paul Ritter is brilliant as a prissy, floppy-haired Lush, holding back on delivering his “report” (every incident is subject to an official reckoning) then spewing it out at astonishing length and variety. True to his name, he gets increasingly seedy as he becomes intoxicated on more than the spirit of Christmas.
Lia Williams is excellent as the enigmatic Miss Cutts, writhing in ecstasy at the recall of the earlier torture games and playing out an unexplained sexual contest with the men. Leo Bill is worth a mention for his amusing portrayal of the twit Lamb (to the slaughter) who offers himself up willingly to the forces of evil.
There’s so much that’s familiar about Pinter’s writing in this piece repeating patterns of speech, curt exchanges that conceal depths of terror and a blindingly brilliant use of language but as the play progresses, it falls apart and lurches inelegantly towards a disappointingly dated conclusion.
The Hothouse is a fascinating example of Pinter’s early style, holding out all the promise of his mature work, but it’s not fully convincing in its own right and is unlikely to ever be seen as a masterpiece.