Harold Pinter’s vision has come true. Up and down the land, institutions set up to care for the vulnerable have become callous places of torment. As a series of disturbing reports have shown, in a number of places, residents are at best routinely treated without respect and, at worst, abused. In that sense, real life has overtaken this prescient play. At least here, Roote (Simon Russell Beale), chief executive of the hospital in Pinter’s nightmare, has enough humanity to be appalled by the death of patient 6457. And at least he has the decency to show a little shame when it’s revealed that the baby born to patient 6459 is his.
He also appears to fear he might be called to account for the abuse under his watch, which is rarely the case in real life. So nobody can doubt the searing relevance of The Hothouse. But, as Pinter apparently acknowledged, the satire here comes across as pretty laboured at times.
Jamie Lloyd’s production, the latest in his muscular Trafalgar Transformed season, evokes both physical and moral decay. Soutra Gilmour’s design lines the Trafalgar’s cavernous stage with shabby interior walls.
Neglect here is engrained. The pointy bust, tight pencil skirt and high heels worn by the sexually insecure and predatory Miss Cutts (Indira Varma) locates the play somewhere around the year Pinter wrote it, 1958. And so does the humour. The exchanges between Roote and his sinister subordinates Gibbs (John Simm) and Lush (John Heffernan) have a kind of Beyond The Fringe absurdity about them. What makes them funny is Russell Beale, whose Roote is a brilliant portrait of insecure authority. Every piece of bad news delivered by Gibbs is received with gasping, gobsmacked incredulity.
But terrifying though the scenes in which the willing Lamb (Harry Melling) is experimented on with electrodes are, the evening fails to generate the fear that Pinter a little too obviously intended. And although, yes, we are made to think not of just failing hospitals but also of totalitarian regimes, the evening amounts to little more than vague political posturing. I was left feeling an absence of hard facts about real events that, for instance, Howard Brenton’s new play about Ai Weiwei delivered at the Hampstead Theatre — although that also failed on the fear factor. This is political theatre with a blunt edge.