The Caretaker

Posted by Laurence Green

Timothy Spall makes a welcome stage return as a perennially ungrateful vagrant in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker.

Timothy Spall in The Caretaker at the Old Vic Theatre

A memorable vision of deception and isolation is how you could describe Harold Pinter's groundbreaking play The Caretaker, revived in an absorbing new production, directed by Matthew Warchus, at the Old Vic Theatre.

Disturbed handyman Aston has invited an irascible tramp named Davies to stay with him at his brother's jumbled London flat. At first, it seems that the manipulative guest will take advantage of his vulnerable host. But when Aston's brother, Mick, arrives an enigmatic power struggle emerges between the trio that is in equal parts menacing, touching and darkly comic.

This play was Pinter's first commercial success when it premiered in 1960, establishing his trademark brand of sinister enigma. Its incisive, delicately balanced study of three lost souls drowning in absurd fantasies, still seem fresh and relevant today. Indeed the play asks pertinent questions about our treatment of people who don't fit into society's norms. In one mesmeric and moving sequence Aston reveals his horrifying psychiatric treatment in a mental hospital that made him slow of thought.

Director Matthew Warchus often emphasises Pinter's comedy rather than his menace. But the production manages to move seamlessly from comedy to pathos and from gentleness to casual violence, yet all the time we are gripped by the interaction between this mismatched trio.

Rob Howell's set atmospherically evokes the grimness of slum living - the damp, the peeling walls, the stack of discoloured newspapers, the rusting gas stove, the moulding boxes and the dismembered furniture, not to mention the bucket stuck half-way up the wall to alleviate the dampness, while outside the incessant rain pours down on the battered slate roof.

But what really brings the play so vividly to life are the superb performances - the cast don't just enact their roles they inhabit them, they make them fully believable flesh and blood, people with all their flaws. Timothy Spall, making a welcome return to the stage, is perfect as the invasive, perennially ungrateful vagrant, Davies, whose rodent-like features, shock of grey hair and teeth which don't quite fit, make him resemble a cross between a Dickensian grotesque and music hall comedian down on his luck, and he makes a comic meal out of every line, grunt and gesture. Daniel Mays excels as the generous, simple-minded Aston, whose repetitive gestures and blank expression are the marks of a man who has withdrawn from emotional life. George Mackay is equally impressive as Aston's younger brother Mick, a sleek and supple individual who springs around the room with feline agility, dressed in a leather jacket and with a killer stare, peppering his victim with bewildering patter,

In all then a truly rewarding evening in the theatre and a production of which Pinter would surely have been proud!

The Caretaker

Runs at the Old Vic Theatre, London, until Saturday 14 May 2016.

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