Comedy Theatre, London SW1
Opened 3 October, 1995

One of the most remarkable things about seeing Harold Pinter act in his own plays is that they generally brood much less when he is around. The eloquent pauses and significant obliquenesses are all in place, but Pinter understands as few others the extent of the comedy in his work.

Not that humour is that difficult to spot in The Hothouse, which he wrote in 1958, but "set aside" until 1980, and now transfers from Chichester's Minerva Studio in David Jones' fine production. The shadows are all cast by the scheme of the play rather than its execution. The setting of an undefined "rest home" in which the incarcerated inmates, known only by numbers, are routinely abused by the staff and subjected to electronic torture techniques, whilst the man in charge blusters inanely and his subordinates jostle one another for the succession, offers periodic pre-echoes of One For The Road and Mountain Language. Yet the actual script is less suggestive of Orwell or Kafka than of Orton or even Jimmy Perry & David Croft.

As Roote, the ineffectual, pompous "chief", Pinter sports both a moustache and a manner reminiscent of Dad's Army's Captain Mainwaring. He makes an excellent self-important, retired colonel, unable to string a meaningful sentence together at the best of times and gradually subsiding into a whisky haze in which his accent also periodically blares out broader and more plebeian.

Roote's assistants Gibbs and Lush are played with equal finesse by John Shrapnel and Tony Haygarth. Shrapnel is a master of arid assiduity, his face a careful blank but seemingly emitting the faint whir of the turning cogs of a Machiavellian scheme. Gibbs' diligent attention to detail is unbelievable; Roote certainly cannot believe it, as when he asks, "Between ourselves, man to man, you're not by any chance taking the old wee-wee out of me, are you?"

Where Gibbs is dry, Haygarth's Lush is sly, insinuating, greased with self-satisfaction as he riles his superior, accusing him implicitly of impregnating patient 6459 and murdering 6457. Lush is the agent of two moments of unimaginably broad un-Pinterian comedy. Having twice had a glassful of whisky flung in his face for these allegations, the third time he swiftly grabs Roote's tumbler and twirls it above his head in a galumphing balletic parody later extracting his revenge by presenting Roote with an exploding cigar. The mind boggles that Pinter ever wrote such slapstick, let alone between The Birthday Party and The Caretaker.

As Miss Cutts, mistress of both Roote and Gibbs, Celia Imrie wears a permanent cool smirk, obviously playing her own gnomic game throughout. Christien Anholt is all naïve idealism as Lamb, who is ultimately sacrificed amid the electrodes, wails and flashing lights of "number one interviewing room". Even here the gags persist, as the disembodied voices of Gibbs and Cutts hector him, "Have you always been virgo intacta?" and "What is the law of the Wolf Cub Pack?"

The play itself lacks a little polish: introducing an entirely new character, a Ministry mandarin, for a final five-minute scene smells of dramatic desperation. In the end, though, its successes are much more surprising than its flaws. On this occasion, Pinter's famous "weasel under the cocktail cabinet" is wearing a red nose and clown's baggy trousers.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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