the critics; THEATRE; Pinter laughs at last

Not many plays - certainly not many Pinter plays - are this crowded with characters, incidents, jokes
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BACK in 1958, shortly after The Dumb Waiter and not long before The Caretaker, Harold Pinter put The Hothouse aside "for further consideration"; 20 years later he dug it out and decided it was worth staging after all. Watching David Jones's revival at Chichester, you can see double evidence of the young Pinter's superabundance of ideas and energy: not many playwrights could afford to leave a play this good mouldering at the back of a drawer; and not many plays - certainly not many Pinter plays - are this crowded with characters, incidents, jokes. It makes for a sharp contrast with the leanness and concentration of his stage output in recent years - aside from Moonlight a couple of years ago, it's all been taut, spare one-acters.

Leaving aside the oddities of its production history, The Hothouse is something of a freak in the Pinter bestiary - more directly political, more directly comic, than anything else he's written. It's set in a state- run mental institution, where the patients are referred to by numbers and their needs are subjugated to the convenience, even the sexual demands, of the staff - a collection of misfits and manipulators, wrapped up in their private feuds and alliances. Christmas Day, snow is on the ground, and patient 6459 has just given birth to a boy (the seasonal para- llels here are played up by the carols that open both acts) - the director's reaction to the crisis is, Herod-like, to tell his assistant to get rid of it ("I won't miss it. Will you miss it? Then why should the mother miss it?").

There's a temptation to label this dehumanised bureaucratic nightmare Kafkaesque; but the humour is a touch broader. At one point Roote, the director, recalls a speech made by his predecessor - " `Order, gentlemen,' he said, `for the love of Mike!' As one man we looked out of the window at Mike..." Later, there's a superb slapstick sequence, as Roote pours successive glasses of whisky over Lush, a smilingly insubordinate subordinate - third time around, Lush grabs the glass away and teeters back out of reach.

Somebody once suggested that The Castle would make a good Marx Brothers vehicle; with Pinter, you feel more specifically British models would be appropriate - The Hothouse is in the tradition of staff-room comedies, St Trinian's or Whack-O, where teachers blunder desperately in their efforts to contain the uncontainable. Indeed, it would have been worth seeing what the late "Professor" Jimmy Edwards would have made out of Roote, the institution's blustering, dangerously vulnerable director.

The casting here is hardly less interesting, though, with Pinter himself playing Roote. You probably know the classic Pinter anecdote - the one where he ticks off an actor during rehearsals for one of his plays, saying, "I wrote that pause as three dots, you played it as two." It's worth noting because one thing you notice here is that Pinter's own timing is not that good. He looks the part - tweed suit, seedy moustache and sideburns, hair combed unconvincingly over bald patch - and he projects well Roote's underlying uneasiness, his sense that his underlings are somehow getting at him (which they usually are). He's especially effective at the moments when Roote's nerve cracks and he breaks out into sudden violence - this shouldn't be a surprise, though, since one thing that's always made Pinter an alarming writer is the lurking sense that he knows quite a lot about violence and is probably rather good at it.

All the same, there's a jerky quality to this performance; and when you see him playing against, say, Tony Haygarth's leering, brilliant Lush, it's easy to see that there's more humour and tension in the lines than the author manages to squeeze out of them. That's a minor qualification in such a highly charged, tightly paced production. As well as Haygarth, there are excellent performances from John Shrapnel, as Roote's desiccated, machiavellian assistant, and Celia Imrie as the staff-room seductress; while Eileen Diss's set captures perfectly an air of low-budget institutional luxury. You really do wonder what the play was doing in that drawer all that time.

It's something of a leap from here to Congreve's Love for Love, even when, as in Jon Harris's production at New End, the dark side of the comedy is so determinedly played up: the play starts with a little tableau of beaux and belles paying court to one another, gossiping, intriguing, doing those Restoration things - but all ridiculously overdressed, in the style of Louis XIV's court, with pointy wigs and white-painted faces with rouged cheeks. As the play progresses, the make-up is wiped off, the outer layers of clothes discarded, so that by the end the glitter is all gone, and we're left with a stark black set and a cast in plain black clothes; even the acting style calms down, from ludicrous posing and falsetto squeals, to a cool, sardonic final scene - underneath the witty exterior, the message seems to be, this is a deeply puritanical comedy. Point taken. But you can't help feeling that Harris has paid attention to the conceptual elements at the expense of more basic things - acting, for instance. Much of the time you get the sense that these actors have wandered in from different productions (and having to switch styles over the course of the evening presumably doesn't help them in their quest for a common register).

Perhaps it's because of the need to slow down, too, that Neil Roberts's Valentine seems so frustratingly underpowered in the later scenes, when the plot demands that his feigned madness should be reasonably convincing; granted, you need to see that his "madness" isn't so very different from the sanity of the other characters, but that can be over-emphasised. There are some good moments along the way - the rake Tattle's "seduction" of the bumpkin Prue, for instance, when he insists on her showing a decorous reluctance which clearly neither of them feels; but not enough to keep you going for three hours.

`The Hothouse': Chichester Minerva Studio (01243 781312), to 9 Sept; `Love for Love': New End, NW3 (0171 794 0022), to 17 Sept.

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