Reviewing a production by a student company is always a challenge. They are performing in a professional theatre, charging up to £16 a ticket and, at the same time, you have to remember that they are all young, relatively inexperienced actors fitting in rehearsals around lectures, essays and tutorials.
Illyria Productions – the company behind this revival of Pinter’s rarely performed The Hothouse – have been trying to position their production as being a cut-above the average student show in Oxford. They have been trumpeting the size of their budget and claiming that the cast is full of ‘some of Oxford’s brightest young acting talent.’
Having raised expectations so high, the production has to deliver on the hype. I am sorry to say that it fails on many levels.
There is no doubting that the individual actors all have talent. However there is little sense of them coming together as an ensemble, as a group working together. Each individual seems to be isolated from the rest – almost competing for attention from the audience at times. There are occasions when the potential of the actors is realised – but these are all too infrequent.
The Hothouse is one of Pinter’s most explicitly comic scripts – and there are moments of slapstick which can strike audience members as somewhat out of kilter with the rest of the text. However there are too many lines where the cast seem to have been encouraged to play for the laugh rather than allowing the laugh to come from those watching. The opening night audience (made up, seemingly, of large numbers of friends of the cast and crew) were certainly laughing – but not, perhaps, in the way Pinter intended.
There are a couple of elements which are noticeable by their absence from the direction. For the play to succeed there has to be an air of menace, of threat, of underlying tension. This is largely missing. As a result the dramatic arc of the play is disturbed as there is no real build-up to the climactic events at the end of the second act.
The other key omission is a sense of light and shade. My companion for the evening was quite right when she said the playing was all very much on one level. There is no real exploration of contrast, of nuance. I can do no better than to repeat her comment that some of the comic scenes come over as ‘Carry On Pinter.’
As previously mentioned, much has been made in the pre-publicity on the size of the budget. Most of this has clearly been lavished on the set and the use of multimedia technology. Three projectors are used throughout the performance – which is great. However they should, perhaps, be turned off during the blackouts so that the actors can leave the stage unnoticed. The use of CCTV imagery feels appropriate in a play about a secure state institution however it does sit uneasily with the script making reference to reports needing to be produced on typewriters.
There is much to admire in the ambition of the set design however it fails to properly deal with the sightline problems which are present in the Playhouse. This means anyone sat towards the sides of the auditorium cannot see all the elements that have so carefully been employed (including the projection.) Some of the blocking also falls foul of the Playhouse architecture – and given that many of the team have worked there before, I would have hoped they would have aimed to have avoided some of the more obvious pitfalls.
This is, without doubt, a critical review – I make no apologies for that - I have to be honest. The production team are largely a victim of their own hype. You have to deliver what you promise – and they do not. There is talent, commitment, ambition and self-belief a-plenty in the cast and crew however there is a sense that, on this occasion, they may have over-reached themselves.
Student theatre is a chance to experiment and to make the mistakes you would never get away with in the profession. I would never discourage student companies from taking risks and being prepared to fail from time to time. Many involved in this production will go on to try to make careers in the professional world of theatre – some will succeed, some will fail. I am certain that they will all learn from their experience of working on The Hothouse.