Simon Russell Beale has transformed himself into a manic version of Ronnie Barker in this merciless, very funny revival of Harold Pinter’s second major stage play, one he wrote and discarded between The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, before directing it himself in 1980.
Russell Beale is a goggle-eyed, spurious ex-colonel, Roote, with a mean little moustache and a club tie, presiding over some kind of rest home, or rehabilitation centre, fitted out with old-fashioned radiators and linoleum squares in Soutra Gilmour’s design, where things have suddenly spiralled out of control on Christmas Day.
It emerges in an opening exchange with Roote’s suited sidekick, Gibbs (played with chilling understatement by John Simm), that one patient, 6457, has been killed, and another, 6459, has given birth to a boy.
The security man, Lamb (Harry Melling, signalling frantically with non-stop hand gestures), is unceremoniously subjected to a primitive form of electric shock treatment, while the spokesman for the under-staff, Tubb (a gleamingly sedated Clive Rowe), arrives with a cake.
Inside the cake is a microphone with which Roote addresses the unseen patients. He then divides the cake in two and forces John Heffernan’s mauve-suited, Kenneth Williams-y alcoholic Lush to stuff half of it into his own face. Enter Miss Cutts (a blatantly seductive Indira Varma) in her nightie, no stranger to Roote’s bed, or anyone else’s, apparently, offering neck massages and potency taunts.
While the last major revival, at the National Theatre in 2007, offered a satirical gloss on internment camps from the Gulag to Guantanamo, Jamie Lloyd’s production for his “Trafalgar Transformed” season – following on the brutally exciting Macbeth led by James McAvoy – picks up on the play’s comic implausibility to such an extent that you wonder how Joe Orton could possibly have written What the Butler Saw without knowing it.
Mind you, lunatics taking over the asylum was hardly news to Pinter even the mid-1950s, when he volunteered (for ten bob) as a guinea pig to undergo shock treatment at the Maudsley Hospital. But here, Kafkaesque creepiness is up front and grand guignol.
Pinter himself played Roote with a threatening ferocity in 1995. Russell Beale is frightening in a different way, his panic and vulnerability so full-on that you fear he might explode. It’s a brilliant, technically adroit and hilarious performance in a production that daringly, perhaps even sacrilegiously, suggests there is more than one way of playing poker-backed, po-faced Pinter.
To 3 August (0844 871 7632)