By Harold Pinter
Trafalgar Studios, London, SW1A 2DY
To August 3
Opening the programme for Jamie Lloyd's second production of his Trafalgar Transformed season, my heart sank. It contained essays on Pinter and politics, torture in Turkey and the abuses of Guantanamo. I feared I might be in for a grim evening. The shock, however, was that this nearly forgotten gem from 1958 is just side-splittingly hilarious.
There is, of course, humor in (nearly) all Pinter and those who can't find it shouldn't be directing him, but here Jamie Lloyd puts the emphasis firmly on the comic and serves up a production – beautifully designed by Soutra Gilmour – with echoes of Orton at his best.
Written between The Birthday Party and The Caretaker and shoved in a drawer because he considered it unworthy (the idealistic young author damned it as "satirical and useless"), the play didn't see the light of day until 1980 and, shamefully, it has had only one other outing in the West End. However, Pinter's anxiety about the piece did lift in the aftermath of revelations about the abuses of psychiatry in Soviet mental health institutions, when it became apparent that his little play had proved to be rather scarily prophetic.
Here though, the crumbling institution is quintessentially British and Jamie Lloyd's Rank movie-style production makes it even more so. Pinter carefully surveys the intense collegiate relationships between the staff and their utter indifference to their patients, whom we never see and who are designated by numbers rather than by their names. We hear the odd wail and it becomes clear that electric shock therapies are carried out after one of the more keen young staff blithely volunteers as a guinea pig. The appropriately named Lamb, wonderfully played by Harry Melling, is a keen-to-please, camp, ball of energy.
Here nobody speaks any truth, even for a second, and language is the main weapon. The lethal swish of British understatement and sarcasm is deployed with great panache and Pinter gives even his supporting characters some glorious arias of verbiage, packed full of euphemism and caustic wit. John Heffernan is a particular delight as Lush, a rebellious dandy, who reaches heights of comic brilliance which only Kenneth Williams could have attained. His gift for physical comedy is gloriously evident too in a hilarious drunken cake fight.
At the head of this permanently sinking ship is Roote, and Simon Russell Beale triumphs as this blustering and tetchy ex-Colonel. Channelling Captain Mainwaring from Dad's Army, he combines both verbal and physical dexterity and delivers a performance that is utterly sublime. Clearly losing his grip, he's informed on this day (and it is Christmas Day, no less) that one patient has died and another has had a baby. "But how?" he demands of his assistant Gibbs (John Simm). "She had an accomplice sir"!
Cleverly cast against type, TV star Simm is the perfect foil for Russell Beale and brings a creepy punctiliousness to the ruthless, clipboard-wielding bureaucrat. Indira Varma too is a sheer delight as the vampish Miss Cutts, the apex of the love triangle.
As an indictment of the madness of institutional bureaucracy the text couldn't be bettered and it speaks to us today as we witness chaos in one great British institution after another. Here though, Lloyd has unleashed the full comic potential of the piece and while some might bemoan how this production neglects the chilling undercurrent of the play, these folk can, after all, settle for those programme notes.