Jamie Lloyd's high-energy "Trafalgar Transformed" season continues with an outrageously funny production of Harold Pinter's weirdly unfinished second major play, one he wrote shortly after The Birthday Party in 1958 but never produced on the stage until 1980.
You can see why. It's a series of sketches in a state-run institution where Simon Russell Beale as "Archie" Roote, the boss, is straining - every eye-muscle bulging, in fact - to keep slim-line, slyly understated John Simm, as his too-well-informed assistant, Gibbs, at bay.
It's Christmas Day in the doghouse: one patient has died, and one given birth. Who's responsible? Suspicions devolve on an innocent inmate, Lamb (Harry Melling), who is subjected to some comical sci-fi shock treatment with electrodes and earphones. Anything goes, for Roote and Gibbs have been given carte blanche by the ministry.
Interestingly, and not necessarily to the play's advantage, Lloyd and his actors have re-invented Pinter as Joe Orton, with a rapid fire dispensation of the dialogue, frantic physical movement and, with Indira Varma's Miss Cutts, a sensual siren in search of a sofa.
Russell Beale gives an astonishing technical performance of manic vulnerability and eye-popping power lust. We never see his patients, beyond the volunteer Lamb, just this absurd Ubu tyrannical figure and his immediate underlings: Simm's dryly-articulated, bespectacled, grey-suited Gibbs, and John Heffernan's mauve-suited Lush, who gets a glass of whiskey thrown in his face (twice) for his pains.
It's a hilarious dissection of power play tactics, sucking up and bedding down with people you despise, all of it underpinned by a sort of blind panic about keeping the show on the road. What exactly is this place where, as Heffernan reiterates, the snow has turned to slush?
Is this a political metaphor, or just a place where some people are treated less well than others? Pinter is the poet of political paranoia, and this play - while not achieving the dramatic density of the early classics that surround it in his canon - is the only black farce I know that includes satirical rhetoric, ECT and an exploding cigar.
The vivid, quirky language is brilliantly despatched by Russell Beale, Heffernan in his great Beckett-light monologue and, later on, by Clive Rowe as a grovelling under-staffer - bearing a Christmas cake with a microphone for the masses - and Christopher Timothy as the all too plausibly ridiculous man from the ministry.
Designer Soutra Gilmour has reconfigured the stage area as a lino-floored sanatorium with a forest of thin hanging wires for the medical experimentation and seats for onstage audience members who might worry about ending up on the wrong side of the performance.
- Michael Coveney