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The Caretaker – review round-up

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Harold Pinter had already been credited with changing the face of British theatre before The Caretaker appeared in 1960, but it was this play’s commercial success which saw the word ‘Pinteresque’ first used (by The Times) to describe his characters’ rhythmic, colloquial speech, peppered with weighty pauses and loaded with implied threat.

The play tells the story of opportunistic hobo Davies as he settles into the attic room of a dilapidated house with brothers Aston and Mick. Aston has been traumatised by brutal treatment for mental health problems, but is mild and weak in comparison to the sharp-tongued Mick, who purposefully scares and confuses Davies as he plans a slick renovation for the West London flat. Each faces a harsh reality, but Pinter’s play is also an absurdist comedy about an unlikely power struggle – where every man’s for himself.

This Old Vic production is the second to be directed by Matthew Warchus in his first season as Artistic Director and, as he did for The Master Builder, he works with designer Rob Howell. Onstage are Timothy Spall as Davies, Daniel Mays as Aston, and George MacKay as Mick. Megan Vaughan rounds up the reviews.

The Caretaker – the Spall show

Timothy Spall (Davies) in The Caretaker at The Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan. (2)

Poor Timothy Spall, who is ascribed every possible version of ‘rat-faced’ or ‘rodenty’ there is going. Still, his appearance in The Caretaker is clearly striking, with Marianka Swain (Artsdesk ★★★) defining it as “somewhere between Dickensian grotesque, fastidious dandy and vaudevillian clown” and Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out ★★★) opting for “a bizarre mix of Russell Brand, Mr Twit and a very ill Victorian tramp”. More poetically, Natasha Tripney (The Stage, 3 stars) goes for the rather lovely “raggedy Bagpuss in a dead man’s coat”.

Spall’s performance itself isn’t widely praised. Laura Foulger (The Upcoming ★★★★) calls it “scene-stealing” in the most positive way possible, but Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard ★★★★) thinks it “contains finicky bits of business that Pinter never intended” and Michael Billington (Guardian ★★★★) feels “there is an edge of danger and aggression to Davies that … gets lost”.

Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph ★★★) goes even further, complaining about inaudible delivery: “Almost every utterance is accompanied by a starter of eye-rolling and muttering, followed by a double-helping of catarrhal growls and mangled vowels finished by the sort of swallowing you usually hear at the dentists.”

The Caretaker – setting the tone

Spall’s attention-grabbing performance does at least seem to match the scale and tone of the production. Natasha Tripney refers to “comic strip Pinter” and Michael Billington comments that “the approach here is more physical than metaphysical … Warchus’ production treats the play less as a microcosmic study of power-politics and more as a strange comedy about a trio of deluded outsiders”.

The importance of sympathetic design emerges, although that doesn’t always equate to consensus. For Andrzej Lukowski, “the feeling of everything being overegged is compounded by Rob Howell’s monolithic, almost Tim Burton-esque set” but for Marianka Swain it’s “a period treasure trove… the perfect backdrop for the larger-than-life turn from Timothy Spall”.

Howell’s contribution impacts Natasha Tripney’s reading of the play too, as she draws parallels with today’s housing market: “with its focus on ownership and belonging, on ‘doing up the place’, The Caretaker gains a strange resonance, the idea that one’s home can be both a prison and an asset – this grubby, purgatorial attic would probably cost the best part of a million today.”

The Caretaker – a-Mays-ing

Daniel Mays (Aston) in The Caretaker at The Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan. (3)There is respect given to George MacKay for his portrayal of Mick (notably from Henry Hitchings at The Evening Standard and Holly Williams for WhatsonStage), but it is Daniel Mays who shines brightest for most. Aston’s Act II speech, recalling his time in a psychiatric institution, is praised over and over again. For Dominic Cavendish it is one of “the most affecting moments of the night”; for Marianka Swain, “a mesmerising sequence”; and for Natasha Tripney, “a moment of real hold-your-breath potency”. Andrzej Lukowski writes that he “delivers the first restrained performance I’ve ever seen him give, and it’s superb, quietly upsetting as Aston, a man no longer fully there.”

Michael Billington compliments the way Mays unlocks the torment in Pinter’s troubled character: “The temptation is to play Aston, the victim of electro-convulsive therapy, as a gentle giant in the manner of Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. But the supreme virtue of Daniel Mays’s performance is that he reminds us that Aston, for all his grace and obsession with three-pin plugs, is full of residual anger.”

Stephen Bates (Beast’s Pen ★★★★) agrees: “Pinter uses no flowery language, Mays uses no over-emphasis and the effect is utterly devastating, stunning even the usual coughers in the audience to total silence. Normally a second interval that stretches a production to over 200 minutes would be regrettable, but, in this case, Mays’ monologue can be followed by nothing else.”

The Caretaker – so is it any good?

Enthusiasm is distinctly muted, with the three hour running time described as ‘bloated’ by more than a few different writers. Most critics find something good in it but, despite the acclaim for Mays, the three star ratings outweigh the fours. Michael Billington is probably the most generous with his summary: “It may not be the whole truth about Pinter but, in dispensing with awed reverence, it gives the play a renewed vigour and zest.”

Interestingly, Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail ★★★) seems to take greatest umbrage at the racist language spoken by Davies at the start of the play: “Spall’s character ranting like Steptoe or Alf Garnet about ‘blacks’ won’t win many new fans today… it’s not a play that’s easy to love.”

That’s nothing compared to the reaction of Stephen Collins (Live Theatre UK ) though. Collins found The Caretaker so “unpardonably dreary” that he “fled the auditorium” in the first interval.

Read Natasha Tripney’s review in The Stage

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