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The Caretaker review at the Old Vic, London – ‘mighty performances’

Timothy Spall and George MacKay in The Caretaker at the Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan Timothy Spall and George MacKay in The Caretaker at the Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

This is comic strip Pinter. It’s a lovingly drawn comic strip, performed with great technical skill and conviction, but it’s still a comic strip. Matthew Warchus’ production of Pinter’s faintly absurdist 1960 play, The Caretaker, is one of broad strokes and ink blots.

Timothy Spall plays Davies, a shambling homeless man who is given a bed for the night by the slow moving Aston. Once there he infiltrates Aston’s decaying and cluttered attic room like a weed. He’s the classic Pinter outsider, disruptive, insistent, menacing yet pathetic.

It’s a large role and Spall’s performance is also one of considerable size, part Steptoe, part Fagin, part Catweazle; a raggedy Bagpuss in a dead man’s coat and saggy long johns. His teeth don’t quite seem to fit his mouth. He prattles. He rants about “the blacks.” He lies. He cadges. He’s mesmerising yet deeply irritating in equal measure.

Aston lives in his brother, Mick’s, house. The attic is only a small part of it; there are other rooms, but these are off-limits, boarded up. Daniel Mays is a lurching gentle presence as Aston, precise in his movements, hulking yet delicate. He’s the most taciturn of all the characters but he puts that eloquent Bash Street kid face of his to great use, and manages to express much even when being still. George MacKay, the star of Warchus’ 2014 film Pride, plays Mick as Aston’s antithesis. He’s like a walking switch-blade in a tight black leather jacket. He doesn’t speak so much as attack, firing words in machine gun volleys.

Like Warchus’ previous Old Vic production, Ibsen’s The Master Builder, this is something of a beast: three hours long with two intervals, but while it never exactly drags, it also never quite earns its length either and there are times when it feels a bit bloated. The middle section is by far the strongest, with Hugh Vanstone’s lighting dimming atmospherically as Mays delivers his character’s big speech about being committed to mental hospital and forcibly subjected to ECT, a procedure that has left him permanently damaged and scrambled. It’s a moment of real hold-your-breath potency.

One of the things that Warchus’ at times too-big production does best is to make the room itself so central. The set, by his regular collaborator Rob Howell – who also designed The Master Builder – is rich in detail, if like so much else here, slightly outsize. The brothers’ dilapidated attic, their V-shaped room, is piled high with scavenged bric-a-brac, the dormer window streaked with rain, the whalebone slats of the roof visible through the flaking plasterwork, the damp rising. There are ziggurats of clutter, totems of old newspapers, there’s even (of course) a kitchen sink. And 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.

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Verdict
Mighty performances anchor a broad and slightly bloated production of Pinter’s classic tragicomedy
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