Written in 1958, between The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, The Hothouse was then put aside by Pinter for more than twenty years. It wasn’t until 1979 that he picked it up again – it was staged in 1980 at the Hampstead Theatre and transferred to television two years later.
The most striking thing about the play at first glance is just how funny it is. Pinter’s other works aren’t always devoid of humour, but for long stretches The Hothouse plays like a farce (albeit one with a very dark heart).
The setting – a nameless Government run rest home which (it’s strongly implied) uses any means necessary to “cure” those unfortunates who’ve found themselves within its walls – is a sombre one. The dehumanising nature of the place is reinforced when it’s revealed that the patients are never referred to by their names – only numbers.
The momentary spasm of disquiet this generates is then negated when Roote (Derek Newark) launches into a lengthy argument with his second-in command, Gibbs (James Grant), about whether 6457 is alive or dead. This is an early example of Roote’s inability to grasp the simplest of arguments and as Derek Newark attacks the lines with gusto there’s little you can do but sit back and enjoy the ride.
Featuring seven speaking parts (five major, two minor) it’s the character of Roote who dominates throughout. Newark was always one of those actors who could be guaranteed to add a certain something to any production, but I can’t recall a better performance from him than this one. Raising the roof on more than one occasion, Newark delivers a sparkling comic turn. Roote presents himself as an expert of virtually any topic, but the reality appears to always contradict this (mind you, it’s possible that he’s more perceptive than his outwardly blimpish persona might suggest).
Although the plot is a good deal more straightforward than many of Pinter’s other plays, there are still points which are open to interpretation. Roote is shocked to learn that 6459 has given birth (and also that the majority of the staff had – at one time or another – taken advantage of her) but there’s strong evidence to suggest that he’s actually the father. And we never learn exactly who organised the revolution which – offscreen – slaughtered all but one of the senior staff towards the end of the play.
As a character, Roote will only work if he has equally strong personalities to bounce off. James Grant deadpans throughout as Gibbs, his passive and methodical nature contrasting nicely with Roote’s hysterical outbursts. Robert East (Lush) is a totally different character type from Gibbs (Lush is outspoken and arrogant) but again he’s another who interacts delightfully with Roote. In possibly the play’s funniest scene, an incensed Roote throws several glasses of whisky into Lush’s face before Lush decides it might be more sensible to hide the glass until he’s delivered his latest contentious comment.
Given the era it was written in, it’s possibly not surprising that The Hothouse only features one female character, Miss Cutts (Angela Pleasence) and also that she somewhat skirts the environs of the piece. The lover of both Roote and Gibbs, she may be somewhat indistinctly defined but Pleasence is able to bring her into sharp focus.
Roger Davidson as the hapless Lamb, also has limited screentime but leaves a lingering impression. The least experienced of the senior staff, Lush finds himself wired up with electrodes and tortured by Gibbs and Miss Cutts (Gibbs is looking for someone to take the blame for 6459’s pregnancy and the ingenious Lamb fits the bill nicely).
His name seems apt, since he really is a lamb to the slaughter (before, during and after his ordeal he doesn’t really seem to understand what’s happening). His blithe co-operation, even when being tortured, is played for laughs, but is undercut by the pain he suffers when the electricity is turned on. With the patients remaining off-screen throughout, this scene gives us an inkling about what could be occurring throughout the building.
Deftly juggling light and dark themes, The Hothouse doesn’t feel like a relic of more than sixty years ago. Indeed, maybe it’s even more relevant today than it was back then.