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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Caretaker
Trafalgar Studios Winter-Spring 2010

Watching this fine revival of Harold Pinter's first success reminds me that his plays have gone from seemingly obscure to perfectly understandable as we have caught up with his vision - schoolkids today can write more perceptive essays on this play than the professional critics did fifty years ago.

And it also follows a pattern of discovery that Pinter's early plays, originally staged in artificial or stylised ways, are actually works of fully rounded naturalism, best played as the simple stories they claim to be.

Certainly Christopher Morahan's production reminds us that this is just a play about an old man and two brothers, three characters who are each emotionally damaged in some way and thus really bad at reaching out to each other, however much they may (for their different reasons) want to. And we need look no further than that very sad fact of life - that our own neediness can get in the way of our fulfilling our needs - to find a very real and satisfying drama here.

A reminder - Aston, a socially inept man, brings the tramp Davies home to his junk-cluttered room, perhaps collecting him along with the other stuff, perhaps seeing him as a safe first step toward human engagement. The old man grabs the chance at a roof over his head, but can't resist pushing for more and more, testing his host's boundaries. Meanwhile the host's brother Mick, unable to express his fraternal feelings directly and possibly jealous of the tramp, plays his own mind games on the old man.

(Yes, there may very well be more to the play's underlying themes than that, but my point is that a half-century's experience - and this production in particular - make it clear that the play works very well on this level alone.)

And director Morahan has clearly chosen to focus on the human stories, with all three of his actors playing more simply, naturalistically and directly than you may have encountered in other productions.

Jonathan Pryce certainly looks for all the opportunities for warm realistic humour in the old man, and many sequences you might remember as dark - the monastery story, talking in his sleep, being scared by the Hoover - are played for easy, unforced chuckles. His tramp may not be quite as desperate as some might like, but that brings new colours to the role - at one point I had the sense (which I'd never had in any other production) that someone new to the play might actually think he was going to win, displacing Aston in the house.

We eventually learn the source of Aston's oddness, and in the past that has led too many actors to play him as near-catatonic from the start. But Peter McDonald makes him seem quite normal through most of the play, suggesting that his mental handicap is more a matter of his own self-perception than real, adding a nice layer of sadness to the character while also keeping from straying too far into the grotesque.

And Sam Spruell's Mick is also less gratuitously enigmatic than some have misguidedly made him, his anxieties and antagonisms cloaked in a veneer of jokey blokishness.

There are some sacrifices to this generally light reading of the play, with some of the darker colours of the men's hunger for connection lost. But that just demonstrates what a great play this is, capable of handling, and even being enriched by fresh and sensitive variations in focus and tone.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Caretaker - Trafalgar 2010