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A goggle-eyed maniac and his sidekick: Simon Russell Beale (left) and John Simm in “The Hothouse”

When Harold Pinter wrote The Hothouse in 1958, he was still reeling from an icy critical reception to The Birthday Party the year before. He shelved the play, set in an unspecified asylum-cum-detention centre, to which a faceless government bureaucracy has consigned prisoners presumably for political crimes. The Hothouse thus lay in cold storage until 1980. Now it receives its first serious revival with a star cast — and the Trafalgar Studios' version of Pinter's dystopia leaves us in no doubt of the corrosions of power. 

Simon Russell Beale plays Roote, the man in charge (loosely) of the institution. Roote has murdered one of his patients and fathered a child by another: one of the more glaring representations of a lunatic in charge of the asylum. Russell Beale proves himself once again as the John Lewis of British actors, thoroughly dependable at whatever he purveys, which in this case blends elements of earlier roles as Stalin and Timon with the fraught inadequacies of Captain Mainwaring trying to control a rambling British outfit of drunks and misfits.

Egging him on, or trying to tip him over the edge, is his sidekick Gibbs, played with an insinuation of violence by John Simm. The sheer pace of delivery director Jamie Lloyd imposes on the text imbues the story with a manic energy, but also reduces parts of an already convoluted dialogue to incoherence. But the major problem here is a flaw in Pinter's original vision. Are we expected to take seriously the idea that political prisons on the Soviet model were being emulated by British governments in the era of Harold Macmillan? If not, then it is merely a black comedy, rather than a dire warning.

One solution to this is to indulge a "we're all guilty" approach, which the Trafalgar's programme duly serves up, complete with an image of manacled prisoners in Guantánamo. Set aside these logical shortcomings though and enjoy the institutional dowdiness conjured up by Soutra Gilmour's set, Russell Beale's goggle-eyed mania and Simm's greasy bonhomie, masking a terrifying coldness. Indira Varma (recently a finely overwrought Alice in The Dance of Death) livens things up as the institution's resident nymphomaniac, who emerges, hot to trot, at precisely the wrong moments.

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