Theatre Review – The Caretaker (Old Vic)


The Caretaker
by Harold Pinter
The Old Vic Theatre
directed by  Matthew Warchus


Reviewer: Andy Millward

The new Old Vic season is in full swing, post-Spacey and in the safe hands of new Artistic Director Matthew Warchus.  It was a major coup to revive Pinter‘s The Caretaker with Timothy Spall as the eponymous Davies, directed by the same Warchus: Spall is maybe a perfect actor to articulate the inner miseries of Pinter characters. One of those ubiquitous, versatile and much loved British character actors, he can turn up in any guise without disappointing his audience.  He may not be blessed with great beauty, but Spall’s acting technique is undeniably effective.

This is a play that is rapidly becoming an English standard.  It follows a very successful recent outing to see The Homecoming.  The play nods to Beckett‘s Waiting For Godot in its exposition of power-distance relationships, though the concept of bizarre ménage a trois has been used successfully many times. I thought of Joe Orton‘s Entertaining Mr Sloane, where the newcomer uses sex as a weapon to divide a brother and sister.  In The Caretaker it is not sex that drives conflict but ultimately the looming presence of the decaying house and the arrival of the tramp Davies that ultimately creates a dynamic in the almost unspoken relationship between brothers Mick and Aston.

A sense of bleakness pervades the theatre, courtesy of a brilliant onstage illusion.  There appears to be a brick wall set at an obtuse angle, with rain falling constantly from the lighting rig above.  That the water is not cascading down on to the stage was the only way you know it is not real.  Trompe L’oeuil but with a gripping purpose, foretelling a most darkly grim Caretaker.  As the wall rises, the stage appears in the nether distance, then moves forwards as if a camera was panning in, until the audience is virtually there in the squalid junk-laden attic room with the cast, thus emphasising claustrophobia such that we notice every nuance of Rob Howell‘s set.  This is designer seedy: holes in the walls, leaks from the roof, peeling wallpaper festooned with damp, newspapers piled in one corner, junk placed with casual deliberation, and constant rain falling beyond the only window.  Never was Pinter’s vision of the set so vividly and austerely reconstructed.

As the stage comes forward and lights come up, we see George Mackay‘s Mick.  He is sharp, sleekly slender, almost fragile.  Dressed in black with hair smoothed back, this Mick is strangely effete but no less menacing and aggressive. He looks at us curiously, but hearing sounds vanishes, allowing Daniel Mays‘s Aston to bring on the tramp. When Mick speaks it is at 90mph, though mostly he is silent and moody, almost obtuse.  Unlike his brother, Mick chooses to keep his own counsel because he does not trust anyone, not even his brother.

As was intended, Aston reminds you of Jack Nance‘s character in the David Lynch film Eraserhead, with shaven temples but a billowing dark quiff above.  He appears kind, gentle, plenty of good intentions but his life is dominated by fixing a plug that does not need fixing and planning to build his shed, without which workshop his plans for improving the house cannot, will not ever be launched.  Each character has an unrealised dream: Davies waits for the weather to break and to get a good pair of shoes so he can go to Sidcup to collect his papers; he never gets there. Mick’s vision is an incredibly detailed house makeover to turn the place into a palace fit for him and his brother, never realised.  But nothing ever happens, ever changes; everything stays the same.

Each could be said to possess a mental disorder too, though only Aston admits to it.  Mays handles Aston’s monologue on his ECT with poise and dignity, but only because at that moment the world fades out and he is alone.  Pinter’s words are quoted in the programme: “At the beginning of this play, Aston hasn’t talked to anyone for 10 years.  By the end of it, he won’t talk to anyone for another 20.”  In that context, Aston’s behaviour makes perfect sense.   Mays captures the presence of a man on the brink of extremes of loneliness and, as viewed by the world, madness. 

Spall’s Davies looks like a tramp nearing the end of his tether.  His face, beard and rangy hair look unkempt, but his waistcoat speaks of better times.  He is mannered, mutters constantly, makes grand sweeping gestures; everything is below the dignity of a man of his station.  Davies, going by the name of Jenkins, presumably to escape the attentions of someone threatening, insinuates himself into the lives of the brothers by constant wheedling and whining, trying to sound important without ever doing anything.   His speech is littered with self-aggrandisement, lies and half-truths.  Only when he feels threatened, ironically, does he shrink back and open up.

This is a masterly telling by all three actors, since Pinter can only truly work as an ensemble rather than a star vehicle – the Caretaker is not a place for egos or heroes, only victims whose lives are gaping and vacuous.  Spall is magnificent, and matched by Mays and Mackay in turn; but the magical moment comes right at the end, as Aston shakes Mick’s hand and puts a brotherly hand on his shoulder.  That moment alone is worth a thousand words, as eloquent and flamboyantly Pinteresque as wordless gesture can ever be.  I urge you to watch while there is time.