“As far as I’m concerned, The Caretaker is funny, up to a point. Beyond that point, it ceases to be funny, and it was because of that point that I wrote it.” – Harold Pinter
Written when Pinter and his wife were renting a flat in Chiswick, and were experiencing a relatively threadbare existence due to him being out of work, The Caretaker soon went on to become one of his most highly regarded works after premièring at the Arts Theatre in 1960. Later transferring to the Duchess, the production then headed to the razzmatazz of Broadway – a contrast indeed to the grim setting of the play…
Focussing on what happens when a homeless man tries to adapt to new surroundings, perhaps the reason why Pinter’s sensitive portrayal of living hand-to-mouth touched a chord with so many, and continues to endure, is largely due to the fact that it was written when Pinter himself was, “very close to this old derelict’s world”, thus tapping into the very real fear of hitting rock bottom, and a certain curiosity in how one ends up there.
The fifth production in Matthew Warchus’s reign as Artistic Director of The Old Vic, after umpteen revivals it’s hard not to go along feeling slightly sceptical as to what any new version is going to offer; yet, within the first ten minutes of this current rendering, also directed by Warchus, I defy anyone not to consider it as fine and as absorbing an example as you’re likely to see in a lifetime.
Daniel Mays is quietly, yet assuredly, spellbinding as the generous-hearted Aston who takes in Davies (Timothy Spall), an old tramp going by the assumed name of Bernard Jenkins who, instead of displaying any gratitude whatsoever, makes increasing demands on his host. Spall is a natural fit for a role that is both humorous, manipulative and ultimately desperate, for despite proclaiming that he is just about to get himself “fixed up”, and will travel to Sidcup for work as soon as the rain leaves off, we all know that Davies is never going to become a regular member of society. And neither, for that matter, is Aston, who is so exquisitely patient with the tramp, while he sits tinkering with some electrical DIY, that you almost want to scream at him for being so nice. Let’s just say, it’s clear from the outset that he’s a sandwich short of a picnic.
When Aston’s sinister younger brother, Mick (George MacKay) begins interrogating Davies and harassing him to clear out, the tramp’s survival instincts kick in and we see him play the two brothers off against each other; accepting first Aston’s job offer of becoming the caretaker of the building, before agreeing to do the same for Mick. The chemistry between the three is tangible, with MacKay lending an exciting raw edge that ramps up the tension well into the second half. It’s also worth noting that it would have been no surprise to find an actor of Spall’s fame attempt to overshadow the other two, especially in light of the larger-than-life aspects of the character, however, whilst he delivers a thunderingly strong performance, there is no sense of ego and he never strays beyond being an, albeit indispensable, link in the chain.
The fact that all the action of this three-man/three-act play takes place entirely in Aston’s bedsit, makes the set design a crucial element in sparking our fascination with the characters residing there, nonchalant as to the grimness enveloping them, and Rob Howell’s keen eye for detail has greatly contributed to bringing the story to life; from the bucket suspended from the ceiling (the brothers’ simple solution to the leaky roof), to the heap of detritus in the middle of the floor, accumulated by Aston in the belief that each object – from a copper pan and broken television set to a bin lid – will “come in handy” or perhaps a device for him to remain a sitting tenant. It’s impossible not to both wince and itch at the deeply psychological drama unfolding against such a backdrop.
The sound design is also highly atmospheric, whether it’s the slamming of the front door and the rain outside that, fortunately for Davies, never stops, or the odd, timely raindrop hitting the bucket; this complex staging is a joy that keeps on giving. However much of a dump Aston’s flat may be, even Davies finally concludes that it’s better to have some kind of roof over his head than none at all, and by the end there’s nothing he won’t do to hang on to it. It’s a compliment when I say that this production well and truly “stinks”.
The Caretaker at The Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1 8NB, until Saturday 14th May 2016. Images by Manuel Harlan. For more information and tickets visit the website.