The Match Box – Tricycle Theatre/The Hothouse – Trafalgar Studios Transformed – review by Carole Woddis.

Frank McGuinness, Harold Pinter, two giants and masters of their genre.  Both overturners of conventional beliefs.  Nothing they liked better than to put a rocket under sacred cows and blow them to the heavens.  Both humanitarians.  One Irish, one an East Ender.

McGuinnes is still with us, thankfully, Pinter alas has passed into the great theatrical pantheon, a legend in his lifetime.  But in a strange way, McGuinness’s latest, now at Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre and Pinter’s The Hothouse, originally written in 1958, reworked and first staged in 1980 and now revived in the handsomely transformed Trafalgar Studios (formerly the Whitehall Theatre) carry a strange affinity.  Both are set within one room; both labour to examine and bring into the light that which would rather not be admitted.

In McGuinness’s case it is a small matter of Revenge; in Pinter’s the habitual one of abuse of power, particularly institutional, State abuse – the kind that in later work he came to make overt.  But it lurks there from the very beginning and in The Hothouse, set in a sinister unspecified hospital or sanatorium where the Everly Brothers blare out whilst ECT (electro convulsive therapy) is applied it comes in the form of farce – slapstick and surreal.

In Jamie Lloyd’s energetic production, it seems close kindred to that other great British theatrical trickster and maverick, the late Joe Orton.

In the end, The Hothouse won’t keep you awake at night but it entertains and through its shock and laughter, it might make you stop and think a moment.  (There’s also a fantastic panoply of platform events surrounding and informing the production.  Who says the West End wasn’t made for intelligent audiences?!)

Simon Russell Beale notwithstanding, there’s John Simm doing a great turn as an apparent obsequiously polite apparatchik to Russell Beale’s Senior psychiatrist (a bustling ex Colonel, a kind of Captain Mainwaring on speed) whilst planning his demise, and John Heffernan as the aptly named Lush, another aide-de-camp, sloshing around in chocolate cake and whisky.  Watch out, too, for the up-and-coming Harry Melling as, again, the appropriately styled Lamb, a lamb to the slaughter if ever there was one.

As for McGuinness’s Match Box.  Well, it’s a perfect gem, a solo tour de force by actress Leanne Best, a testament of defiance and ultimately of grief, of public thirst for revenge and the private, personal reactions occasioned by tragedy – in this case the death of a child, a beloved daughter to unmarried mum, Sal.

Set in Liverpool (the production originated at the city’s Everyman Playhouse) and off the west coast of Ireland, the story is told through Sal’s eyes.  McGuinness with extraordinary imaginative compassion explores how the death of Sal’s daughter, Mary – tragically caught in the crossfire of a gang dispute – destroys her family, sets her against the community because of her refusal to react in expected ways by appearing to forgive her killers and how nonetheless the taint of the event batters her into emotional surrender.

The Match Box will harrow you.  It will disturb and disorientate you partly through McGuinness’s twisting the yarn this way and that.  And partly through Best’s luminous, transformative performance.  And, as directed by actress Lia Williams, with the sound of gaelic voices echoing through the walls of the tattered old Irish farmhouse, it will finally entwine you.

Not to be missed.

The Match Box is at the Tricycle Theatre to June 1.

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The Hothouse is at Trafalgar Studios to Aug 3.

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Carole Woddis © May 11, 2013.