Harold Pinter’s Flying Circus

The Hothouse, Trafalgar Studio 1, 18 May 2013

Not even an excellent cast turning in some top notch performances could save the play from its own defects. Pinter’s look at institutional psychiatric abuse and bureaucratic bungling felt dated and this evoked some late twentieth century references in the acting.

One of the inmates had died and another had become pregnant. This reflected badly on Simon Russell Beale’s Roote, the man ostensibly in charge of the unnamed, unspecified institution. His glasses and bumbling manner were reminiscent of Ronnie Barker’s “man from the ministry” characters who mocked the self-importance of the petty bureaucrat.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, it was obvious that he not only knew the pregnant woman, but was also the father of her child.

The lampooning of bureaucracy turned to farcical physical comedy centring on a substantial Christmas cake, a gift presented to Roote by Clive Rowe’s Tubb on behalf of the ‘understaff’. Roote sliced the cake in two and presented one half to Lush, who tried to cram the entire thing into his mouth. When this proved too much to chew down in one go, he spat it out, a gesture which Roote took as an insult. The subsequent tussle ended with Lush lying on the floor, his neat suit besmeared with cake. Not exactly an average day at the office.

Roote had dithered about making a Christmas address to the inmates. But inspiration came when his lover Miss Cutts reminded him of how devastatingly attractive he had been when they first met. Roote became fired with enthusiasm by her ardent admiration, immediately grasping the microphone and delivering an eloquent speech ad lib. The rotund, ageing man’s loquacious enthusiasm was a ridiculous attempt at reliving his younger days.

John Simm’s Gibbs had a breast pocket full of pens and a clipped, efficient manner that disguised ruthless, back-stabbing ambition. The punctiliousness of his speech had hints of Eric Idle’s cheese shop owner, Mr Wensleydale. It was no surprise at the end of the play, after the massacre of the staff, that Gibbs was the only one to survive and was appointed to take charge of the facility by Christopher Timothy’s Lobb.

John Heffernan’s Lush, a camp presence in a purple suit, seemed to be channelling aspects of Kenneth Williams.

Harry Melling’s Lamb was a new, junior member of staff, full of nerves and new ideas. He was unpopular and consequently made a scapegoat: despite obvious indications to the contrary, he was blamed for the pregnancy and later for the massacre.

But the most spectacular character was without doubt Indira Varma’s sex kitten Miss Cutts. She pouted like Carol Cleveland, resplendent in a pointy bra. She flashed her thigh and suspenders at poor nervous Lamb, who ignored her advances. She taunted him during his subsequent interrogation. Her long list of questions about what aspects of women might frighten him included “Their thighs?”

She presented herself to Roote in her nightie, reclined and arched her back, asking him if she were feminine enough. Flirting with Gibbs, she pouted as she played erotically with a table tennis ball near her mouth, reclined showing her stomach, before creeping towards Gibbs on her hands and knees, speaking of “intimacy”.

The small stage was divided into three distinct zones, all huge metal radiators and period furniture, to represent various rooms. Lighting was used to switch between them, the actors sometimes freezing motionless in the shadows when the action moved away. The set featured the staircase specified for a few brief sequences. The eerie sound effects in the stage directions were accurately reproduced.

The first half of the performance established the characters and the basic situation very nicely. But the second half wavered, providing only a weak development of that story, interspersed with gags at the expense of the institution.

Despite a scene in which the put-upon Lamb was tortured in a brutal experiment overseen from another room by Cutts and Gibbs, the play did not create any real outrage at the abuses of psychiatry. Electroshock treatments were a feature of medicine of that period, but today concerns centre on the pathologising of normal behaviour and the misuse of drugs.

Today this facility would be outsourced and owned offshore. A contemporary writer would more likely produce a satire on privatisation. Another symptom of the play’s inherent datedness was the use of the N- word twice as a colour descriptor.

Far from cutting-edge, this play induced the cast to regress to late twentieth century archetypes in order to present a museum piece that really required explanation to be fully appreciated.

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