Harold Pinter’s ‘The Caretaker’ @ The Old Vic

Named “a wild comedy of deluded misfits” by Michael Billington, this most recent revival of Harold Pinter’s ‘The Caretaker’ is a gripping and intense piece of drama which carries its audience from absurd moments of comedy to desperate scenes of loneliness and despair.   Set in one location – a dilapidated, crumbling apartment in a set of flats which are threatened by demolition – a hobo (Timothy Spall) finds charity in the form of reserved handyman Aston (Daniel Mays).  This simple kindness, however, becomes a long term commitment as Davis (Spall) establishes himself as a tenant, his determination to reach Sidcup in order to claim his papers becoming less and less believable as the play progresses.  With the introduction of Mick (George MacKay), and his strange yet fierce protectiveness over Aston, the dynamics become confused as Davis attempts to play off the two brothers, ultimately revealing him to be a disloyal and scheming fraud.  However, Matthew Warchus has worked wonderfully to ensure the complex depiction of Pinter’s characters: Davis is not just a wheedling con artist; he is also a vulnerable and lonely old man, although admittedly one in need of a good wash.

It is the detail of the production which makes it memorable, through the nuanced facial expressions of all three characters, and particular comedic moments.  When Davis finds himself the proud owner of a fabulous new (only to him) velvet smoking jacket, he is also astonished to notice the handkerchief which comes as a freebie.  Pulling it majestically out of the jacket, ready to puff it up and place it in his top pocket, he draws the hankie apart, the sound of its crusty age being audible to the audience and producing a disgusted, collective intake of breath.  Of course, Davis continues to strut about like a peacock, as oblivious to the ridiculousness of his dated and dirty outfit as the pungent smell which follows him about the stage.  He is a brilliant and confusing mixture of pride and poverty, giving off the impression of astute and wise elder, comfortably swinging his crossed leg and eating a cheese sandwich whilst listening to Mick discuss the horrors of the work shy.  The irony of this moment could not have been driven home more clearly unless Warchus himself walked on stage with a sign labelled ‘work shy’ and an arrow pointed straight at Davis.  It is impossible not to draw associations between Spall and his previous roles, his grasping hands, rat-like mannerisms and peasant’s lurch being flagrantly reminiscent of Peter Pettigrew.

George MacKay’s verbal gymnastics, spitting out his words (‘Putney’ holding particular venom) at rocket speed, produced more than one round of amazed applause from the audience.  Dressed all in black and strutting about the stage like a 50s rocker in his leather, with slicked back hair, he is a rather jarring addition to the play.  However, his clear protectiveness over Aston suggests a kinship which serves to illuminate Davis’ nomadic existence, the old man repeatedly refusing a ‘friendship’ with Aston.  Only on the close of the play, when all avenues have been shut to him, is the true vulnerability of Davis exposed: he stands centre stage, jaw wobbling with lost puppy dog eyes, desperately seeking recognition from Aston yet receiving only his turned back.

Aston’s troubled past, hidden beneath a composed and withdrawn exterior, pushes through in certain moments, yet Daniel Mays always maintains control over his character.  Sitting on his bed, with a sleeping Davis opposite him, a spotlight illuminates Aston in the gloom as his monologue recounts the vicious injustice done to him in youth.  The speech is lengthy yet Mays handles this beautifully, revealing just enough anger without losing control on stage.  The play is full of these highs and lows, from the slapstick snatching of Davies’ bag, to the smashing of Aston’s prized golden Buddha.  In a space which is no more than a glorified junkyard, it is the combined genius of these three actors which truly brings Pinter’s play to life.

5 stars! (and I rarely give this rating)

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