Theatre: THE HOTHOUSE Chichester Minerva Theatre

The sound of a lone boy treble intoning a Christmas carol precedes each act in this new staging of Harold Pinter's The Hothouse, epitomising the purity and innocence that are in signally short supply throughout the rest of the proceedings. Though it only saw the light of day in 1980 (in a premiere directed by the author), this play was written back in 1958 shortly after The Birthday Party, and it takes place in just the kind of government-run "rest home" which, one imagines, was the final destination of the mentally vandalised Stanley. Indeed, two of the staff in The Hothouse seem to have learnt their interrogation technique from Goldberg and McCann. The twist here is that the pair obviously find their bombardment of bewildering and increasingly suggestive questions a mutual turn-on. Not so much work as foreplay.

What's surprising about The Hothouse, though, is not the atmosphere of mystery and threat generated by the setting, an establishment whose specific purpose is never revealed and whose unseen patients eventually massacre the staff; nor is it the play's political dimension. The idea that Pinter's dramatic imagination only contracted politics, as it were, in the Eighties cannot survive an intelligent reading of The Birthday Party.

No, what takes you aback, watching David Jones's incisive, darkly droll production, is the degree to which the young Pinter was prepared to revel in jokes - some of them endearingly ropey. Exploding cigars are, after all, pretty thin on the ground in the later plays, as are routines like the one in which the head of the institution twice chucks his glass of whisky into the face of Tony Haygarth's superbly laid-back, insinuating Lush, only to be outwitted on the third occasion when Haygarth, still imperturbably provoking, snatches the glass and holds it over his own head as a precaution.

Sporting a bristly moustache, the author himself plays Roote, the ex- colonel who has to resort to coarse bluster and violence as the grip of his authority over the home slackens. Though you feel at times that he's demonstrating the role rather than playing it, and that he doesn't have enough of a barmy edge as an actor, Pinter is often extremely funny. "Between ourselves, man to man, you're not by any chance taking the old wee-wee out of me, are you?" he asks his deputy, allowing just the right degree of disorientation to creep into the studiedly man-of-the-world menace. He shows you a figure whose soul has turned into a bureaucratic filing- cabinet, and for whom the birth and the death among the patients that have ruined his Christmas Day are essentially administrative hitches.

The rest of the cast is very strong. John Shrapnel gives off a wonderful aura of creepy repression as the blank-faced deputy for whom the massacre is, perhaps not accidentally, a major career boost; and Celia Imrie really puts the italics in fatale as the manipulative mistress-of-two-men. You don't get the sense, as you do with the best of this author's work, that the material has been refined to an almost myth-like essence, and certainly its parts, some of which strike you as gymnastic displays of precocious strength, are greater than the whole. It leaves you, though, in the novel and agreeable position of feeling almost bloated by a Pinter play.

n To 9 Sept. Booking: 01243 781312