The Hothouse

Wed 1st – Sat 4th February 2012

reviews

Xandra Burns

at 22:30 on 1st Feb 2012

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Considering the iconically creepy “Hothouse” posters that seem to be plastered everywhere, the fluorescent flashing trailer circulating the internet - perhaps the most impressive and enticing I’ve seen for theatre, I might add - and the program’s devoted section to a Q&A with Dr Zimbardo and his startling Stanford Prison Experiment, by contrast “The Hothouse” at first appears to be light-hearted and humorous. Expecting a dimly lit stage with some disturbing bursts of light and sound, the clean, crisp angular set we witness seems puzzling, and even more so is the civil exchange between Roote (Matt Gavan) and his soothingly-voiced assistant Gibbs (Ziad Samaha). The disturbing bursts of light and sound do happen eventually, but not nearly as much as would be expected. Instead of a being immersed in “the hothouse” itself we are exposed to its edges, a behind-the-scenes tour, in which the people who run the place speak casually of such grim events as death, torture, and rape. It is difficult to enter the theatre with an open mind about what to expect when the production has already gained such a presence in Oxford before opening night - and like the harsh contrasts between appearance and reality in the play itself, the experience of witnessing “The Hothouse” from the outside before seeing the actual production is jarringly effective.

The blend of production and acting is seamless, with the space created by designer Anna Lewis as sharp as the conversing actors. Finally, a team has overcome the challenge of the Playhouse - the sheer amount of space to fill that too often dwarfs student productions - and even manages to expand beyond the theatre’s physical boundaries by projecting security camera screens through which we can see the actors roam. In fact, there is no weak link in either tech or acting, and I might as well state now what any viewer should see as obvious: the cast is fabulous. Each actor nails comedic lines with the just enough calculated ridiculousness. In the many contrasting dialogues between a static listener and an energetic speaker the perfect balance is struck between the pair. Every word of Pinter’s humor is performed to full potential. In particular, Ruby Thomas as Cutts is a standout - her unforgettable first appearance is defined solely by her character’s signature hip-swiveling walk and a deliberate swirl of glances even before she speaks - and from there she becomes only more interesting, teasing out the action and drawing us into the story.

“The Hothouse” creates a powerful immersive experience without once breaking the fourth wall. It toys with its audience, causing the house to erupt with laughter one moment only for its members to realize soon after that what is happening is not really funny at all. Although the inhabitants of the institution are what make up the central story, they never appear. Instead their silent presence surrounds the action we do witness, and it is their invisible yet influential existence contrasted with the frighteningly casual occurrences of the workers that cause the shivers that the marketing promises. Not to be missed, "The Hothouse" is a fine opener to the student drama scene at the Playhouse this term.

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Alex Fisher

at 09:54 on 2nd Feb 2012

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Somebody once asked Harold Pinter what his plays were about and he responded immediately with the phrase: “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet”. Instantly baffling and seemingly nonsensical this phrase really does sum up Pinter’s work – the veneer of sensibility, order and refinement but something distinctly sinister beneath. I am a huge fan of this playwright and Jamie MacDonagh has directed a superb show – chilling, comedic, unsettling, and brilliant.

MacDonagh has clearly done his research. Not only has he looked into the psychological case study conducted by Dr Phillip Zimbardo’s, he has also brought together the crème de la crème of Oxford’s acting talent. Matt Gavan was wholly believable as Colonel Roote delivering his speech with a real awareness of Pinteresque subtlety – the banal repetition and frustration of miscommunication. This was also reflected in Ziad Samaha’s cool and calm portrayal of Gibbs. Pinter seems to create these characters of omniscience (one thinks of Goldberg in The Birthday Party or Flora in A Slight Ache) who serve to problematise as well as resolve and Samaha was wholly convincing in this role.

Ruby Thomas (Cutts) was an absolute delight to watch. She struck a perfect balance between neurosis and vulnerability, agonising over her femininity whilst simultaneously desperate to be loved by Roote. It was clear that she has a strong sense of character as shown by her impeccable demeanour and her interaction with the other characters. However the two best monologues of the evening go to Jordan Waller (Lush) and William Hatcher (Lamb). Lush’s speech to Gibbs in Act One is drawn to a beautiful climax with wild hand gestures, frantic movement and an increase in pitch and was certainly a marvel to behold. One may feel that his performance in Act Two falls short of what he achieved in the first act but this is not the case. It is difficult to get act drunk in a credible way but Waller is brilliant. It feels like he wasn’t remembering a script, but actually saying what he felt which is a credit not only to Pinter’s writing but also to MacDonagh’s directing.

Similarly, Lamb’s rambling monologue to Cutts in the first half of the play was a delight to listen to – he truly portrayed the innocent who was unknowingly trapped in a web of misdeeds. Moreover, his timing was spot on when being interrogated by Gibbs and Cutts, creating humour in what would otherwise be a disturbing scene. Barnaby White (Tubb) and Robert Leigh-Pemberton (Lobb) were equally convincing in their brief appearances on the stage.

The setting of the piece was well thought out. The innovative use of the projectors at the back of the stage really added another dimension to the piece providing a constant reminder that you were watching the antics of people in a madhouse and not just in some timeless office setting. Whilst I shan’t spoil the unnerving moment of the second half (those who have seen it will know exactly what I’m referring to!) suffice to say the aural and visual senses are overwhelmed creating a truly unique bit of theatre.

My only criticism of the piece was projection. The Playhouse is the largest theatre space in Oxford and therefore the actor needs to work extra hard in order to make sure his or her voice hits the back wall. However, none of the words (in my opinion) were rushed unnecessarily and were enunciated clearly.

As much as I would like to give this five stars I give it four. The play, for all its innovative theatrics, lacked a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ but maybe this was down to the script rather than the performance itself. The denouement was wrought rather quickly and was adverse to the gentle crescendo that was characteristic of the rest of the play (one perhaps thinks of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho). In spite of this, I urge you to see it for some of the best acting in Oxford of the moment – it really is outstanding.

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