“I resent this levity, sir.” So says besuited neatnik John Simm as Gibbs, who has just been accused of plotting to murder his boss. That his line and plight are met with raucous laughter is symptomatic of director Jamie Lloyd’s boldly funny production of Harold Pinter’s “The Hothouse.” A drama often wrecked by portentous high-mindedness — it’s about psychotic staff at a mysterious institution — becomes boisterous fun thanks to co-star Simon Russell Beale and Lloyd driving speedily onwards, their eyes fixed on the drama’s rollicking absurdity.
Written (and, here, set) in 1958 just before he began writing his breakthrough play “The Caretaker,” Pinter’s study of the politesse behind torture, authoritarianism and the dislocation of language takes place on Christmas Day. Not that it’s a cheery occasion. As Gibbs explains, one of the numbered but unnamed “patients” has gone missing. Well, not exactly missing. He’s dead. Another has, a trifle inconveniently, just given birth to a child, fathered by one of the staff.
The day has barely begun and Roote (Russell Beale) is not happy. Correction, he’s permanently seething. At the end of his tether, there’s barely a moment when his character isn’t eye-poppingly enraged over the sullen insubordination of his staff or the potential insurrection by patients. Adding to the combustible mix is his lust for teasing staff member Miss Cutts (smoldering, sophisticated Indira Varma, who could win Olympic gold in slinking and vamping).
In a manner that clearly influenced Monty Python, there’s much humor mined from the ruthlessly absurd logic applied to everyone’s behavior and, most obviously, to their use of language. Audiences cotton on to the fact that this is (at the very least) a kind of institute of correction because of the correction meted out by characters to one another over the literal words they use.
Use of language is continually interrogated, with phrases often comically at odds with their intended meaning. The obsession with how people speak rather than what they actually mean is gradually revealed as the cover for everyone’s complicity in the institution’s hidden but less than benign activities, hinted at by strange, distant screams rending the air.
It’s only when the white coats come out and Lamb (nicely hapless Harry Melling) is invited to help with research — which turns out to be an experiment in torture — that Pinter fully reveals his hand.
By choosing not to hector audiences with the play’s intent, Lloyd achieve comic lift-off. His actors stay on the front foot, playing the text for all they’re worth without laboring the subtext. In particular, preening John Heffernan is wonderfully supercilious as Lush, deliciously just inches away from downright rudeness in his dealings with exasperated Roote.
The energy of Lloyd’s production strengthens Pinter’s intriguing but second-drawer drama and provides a crucible for a notably well-oiled cast. Lloyd’s opening production in his West End, four-play “Trafalgar Transformed” season — “Macbeth” with James McAvoy — was a critical hit that did SRO business. “The Hothouse” lacks a big-screen star in a famous title but looks set fair to emulate the previous success.