Review: The Hothouse ****

Art & Lit Stage

The play is set in a mental institution, and revolves around the power dynamics of those in control – culminating in the revelation of a dark perversion of this power. The acting is excellent, and the design superb, making full use of one of the largest budget of any student production in the history of Oxford student drama. Three CCTV projections are synced to three computers on the set that projections follow the actors off-stage, disturbing sounds jar against a seemingly benign dialogue, and a hidden room is unveiled for one of the darkest moments of the plot.

The first half of the play is flawless – tight, well-paced and with the foundations firmly laid for the ominous developments of the second half. The play excels in the subtle, tacit dynamics of the power relations, and it is testimony to the skill of the actors that an eerie, uncomfortable atmosphere is so prominent in a play that has relatively little action. Rehearsal techniques that concentrated heavily on developing the characters beyond their lines have clearly paid off: tension between Lush (Jordan Waller) and Gibbs (Ziad Samaha) is largely effected through Lush’s invasion of Gibb’s physical space, and Waller’s unflinching stare, that manages to be both comic and threatening. One scene in particular stands out as an example of the actors’ consummate skill in making the unsaid speak volumes.  In an exchange between Lamb (William Hatcher) and Cutts (Ruby Thomas), Thomas barely says anything yet commands a scene solely through the expression of her eyes. As the seemingly imperturbable Gibbs, Sahar is unsettlingly emotionless, and William Hatcher is brilliant as the naive Lamb.

The irascible chief of the institution, Matt Gavan (Roote) is the most engaging of all the characters. His speeches oscillate between mindless quarrelling and repetition to unsettling ruminations on the nature of the institution, and Gavan plays both aspects effortlessly. It is Roote who articulates the dark undertone that builds from the very first scene as he considers the fact the patients don’t have names, but numbers. The play studies the nature of authority in institutions, and the perversion of such power into evil. Director Jamie MacDonagh cites the 1971 Stamford Prison Experiment (a study of the abuse of power in prisons ) as a major influence, and the words of Roote’s Christmas speech to the inmates, ‘men are the same the whole world over’, hang uncomfortably in the air as the chilling climax is revealed.

However, the second half lacks the tightness and the coherence of the first. The ominous sense of something terrible that is so deftly alluded to in the first half never quite reaches the shocking conclusion it could. A final twist is revealed in a chilling scene that makes full use of the sophisticated projection techniques, but for all its subtlety the play needs something explicitly, rather than implicitly, shocking to fully realise the potential of the suspense beforehand.  This is the fault of the play, not the production. The acting is by and large faultless, and the design and directing superb. One problem may be the physical space of the theatre – The Playhouse can be impersonal, and in a play whose strengths lie in the subtle suggestions of dynamics rather than overt revelations, being able to see the flickering of expression on a character’s face is crucial.

Yet these are small criticisms of what is overall an excellent, professional and sophisticated production. It is sinister, subtle, and expertly realised – and that’s just the set.

4 stars

PHOTO/ Bill Knight

The Hothouse is playing at the Oxford Playhouse from Thursday 2nd – Saturday 4th February, tickets are £15/£12/£10.