Harold Pinter’s lesser-known early play The Hothouse was revived last night (18 July 2007, previews from 11 July) at the National Theatre, where it continues in rep in the NT Lyttelton until 4 September.

Written in 1958, Pinter's second full-length play did not receive its first professional staging for more than 20 years and - compared to some of his best known plays such as The Birthday Party, Betrayal, Old Times and The Homecoming - is rarely performed. The last major production was seen in the West End in 1995, when Pinter himself starred.

In the black comedy about paranoia and office infighting, Mr Roote struggles to manage a mysterious, faceless 'rest home' believing that his ever-smiling staff are in support of him. But when patients and a new staff member go missing, events are brought to a sinister head.

At the NT, Stephen Moore is Mr Roote in a cast that also features Lia Williams, Finbar Lynch, Paul Ritter and Leo Bill. The production is directed by Ian Rickson, who stepped down as artistic director of the Royal Court at the start of the year, and designed by Hildegard Bechtler, with lighting by Peter Mumford.

Overnight reviews were generally all in agreement, saying that the play works as a great example of Pinter’s unique style. Critics praised the “balance of darkness and light”, and reported that the production “bristles with unease and menace”. Also acclaimed across the board was the set, with Bechtler’s “intricate, gruesomely shabby” government institution adding to the intense, claustrophobic atmosphere of the piece. Moore’s portrayal of Roote was compared to both Churchill and Captain Mainwaring, complimentary references in both instances. Lynch is seen as “chilling” and “dehumanised”, and all other members of the cast received lavish praise. The only real criticism was to do with the “excessively verbose” second half, though this view was not shared by all.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “Apart from being terrifying, the play is very funny, with comic non-sequiturs and idiomatic riffs that show Pinter gelling his Kafkaesque side with his Peter Cook revue style. The Hothouse is a comedy about authoritarianism and its puppet masters. It has also clearly been influential on playwrights like Sarah Kane and Martin McDonagh … Rickson, making his NT debut, allows the play to meander a little in its own rawness, no bad thing … Stephen Moore’s sing-song delivery and distracted air make his random cruelty and psychotic unpredictability all the more disturbing. And his Churchillian Christmas message – honouring the men who sacrificed themselves in the War so that we might continue – has a wonderfully hollow ring now we know all about incarceration units from the Gulag to Guantanamo Bay.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “What is extraordinary is Pinter's balance of darkness and light. His setting is a sinister, state-run ‘rest-home’ seemingly designed to cure social dissidents. The patients are known only by numbers. The staff, governed by a tetchy ex-colonel named Roote, are in the grip of an insane bureaucratic machine … There's a classic moment when Roote, having lasciviously revealed his intimate knowledge of the pregnant patient, is asked what should be done with her baby: his instant reply of ‘Get rid of it’ doesn't here chill the blood as it should. But what Rickson and his designer Hildegard Bechtler convey is the Jacobean horror of a state-run home filled with the groans of the damned … The performances are also highly impressive. Stephen Moore's Roote may not have the brute power Pinter himself brought to the role in a 1995 revival, but Moore possesses the angry exasperation of a man who is the prisoner of his own institution. Finbar Lynch as his lethal subordinate, Paul Ritter as a caustic underling and Leo Bill as a hapless figure called Lamb lend exemplary support. And, as the only female staff member, Lia Williams exudes a dangerous sexuality.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “What makes the piece so fascinating is that it seems to unite Pinter's early plays of largely unspecified, enigmatic menace with the later - in my view inferior - political plays, in which he specifically depicts the cruelty of the state against the individual … Ian Rickson's production, staged on a monumental, two-storey design by Hildegard Bechtler that chillingly conjures up an institutional hell, proves as hilarious as it is chilling … Stephen Moore is in wonderful form as Roote, the bristling, pompous military boss who falls under suspicion of both murder and of fathering a child with one of the patients. There are moments here that put me in mind of Arthur Lowe's Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army - and there is no higher compliment than that - while Finbar Lynch proves chillingly dark, smooth and sinister as his deputy … Paul Ritter is a walking definition of the word louche as the hard-drinking Lush, and I have never seen an actor get greater comic value out of a hilarious haircut and the simple action of smoking a cigarette. Lia Williams proves disconcertingly sexy as an apparently strait-laced nympho who is turned on by torture, while Leo Bill is first hilarious, then harrowing, as the play's upper-class twit of a sacrificial victim … The excessively verbose second half outstays its welcome, but otherwise The Hothouse finds Pinter near the top of his distinctive and disconcerting game.”

  • Nicholas De Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) - "What a beguiling sense of surprise and novelty Harold Pinter's The Hothouse engenders in a powerfully acted production by Ian Rickson that bristles with unease and menace … It belongs in a Pinter world of its own, one which I had never experienced before … Imbued with the spirit of Franz Kafka, who envisaged the state's long arm and its judicial system as secret agencies from which rationality had long since departed, Pinter's Hothouse shows how the coercive machinery of state oppression works, forcing entry into people's minds and trying to change them … Hildegard Bechtler has dreamed up an absolutely superlative stage design that envisages the hospital as a great, dilapidated hulk, supported by girders and equipped with rickety Fifties office furniture … The cat-and-mouse action centres on the discovery by the asylum's director, Stephen Moore's magnificent, choleric Colonel Roote, that one patient … has had the impertinence to die … Finbar Lynch's smooth, dehumanised Gibbs … finds the colonel's mistress Miss Cutts (Lia Williams) smitten by his line in psychological torture … Almost every cruel or corrupt action, every power game played by Roote with Gibbs and Paul Ritter's scheming Lush, is dispatched with unflinching decorum and in rare, black comic style."

  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (five stars) - "The good news is that Ian Rickson’s superb version of this lesser-known drama is the best yet in a string of Pinter tributes … On Hildegard Bechtler’s intricate, gruesomely shabby set, we never see the patients, who are known only by numbers … Pinter’s genius is to wring humour out of the characters’ unpredictable and unlikely wordplay … It's both sinister and very funny if the cast know how to play it. Fortunately, this lot have the art of playing Pinter to a tee. The director of the institution, played by a brilliantly blustering Stephen Moore, is a time-server more interested in upholding internal traditions than the fact that a patient has just died. His staff – with excellent performances from Finbar Lynch, Leo Bill, Lia Williams and Paul Ritter - range from complicity to complete ignorance about what is really going on. The ideas of the play - first written in 1958 but not performed until 1980 - are undoubtedly dated … In the end the message is not the issue. The joy of the drama is in the absurd interplay of characters beating about the bush, giving huge weight to banalities and skipping over the important details with barely a backward glance. It creates something enthralling from a chilling subject."

    - by Ryan Woods & Stuart Denison