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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Caretaker
Old Vic Theatre  Spring 2016

In some ways Harold Pinter's signature play, The Caretaker here gets a solid, engrossing, frequently laugh-out-loud funny, but always just a little bit puzzling and enigmatic revival in the hands of Old Vic artistic director Matthew Warchus and an impeccable cast. 

When The Caretaker first appeared in 1960 its picture of three odd men behaving oddly confounded critics and audiences as much as it intrigued them, largely because Pinter refused to do what it was generally understood playwrights were supposed to do – explain everything. 

Faced with a play that did not follow the rules of realism as the theatre knew it then, interpreters guessed that it must be symbolic or allegorical in some way, leading to what read now as some very silly interpretations. 

Sometimes it takes the world a while to catch up to its artists, and today schoolkids write essays on The Caretaker that are more insightful than those the critics and professors wrote fifty years ago. 

As Pinter himself put it while directing a revival in the 1990s, 'It's about an old man'.

Street tramp Davies (Timothy Spall) is taken in by Aston (Daniel Mays), a shy, slow-thinking man who is supposedly fixing up the derelict house owned by his brother Mick (George MacKay), but is mainly just collecting stuff that might be useful or that just catches his eye. 

He collects Davies in much the same way, perhaps as a first try at making a friend.

In turn, Mick first terrorises and then cultivates Davies, luring the tramp into a dangerous game of trying to play the brothers off against each other to his advantage, which proves to be a very bad move for him. 

Davies is one of those richly textured roles that allow for variant interpretation, emphasizing his wiliness, his anger, his desperation, or some other core to the character. 

Timothy Spall makes him a crawler and wheedler by nature. Expecting little from life (despite his anger at those who withhold from him) he begs unabashedly and is mildly surprised when he is modestly successful. 

So getting a little too comfortable in his new luxury and being tempted to assert some power over his benefactors is a tragic mistake, not just because it backfires but because he's just not very good at it. 

If Davies is written as a more complex character than he at first seems, Mick and Aston seem to have one dominant note each for actors to play, and the challenge for Daniel Mays and George MacKay is to find all the subtle colours within the brothers. 

We will eventually learn why Aston is so slow-thinking and inward-looking, in an extended narrative speech that Mays plays beautifully, but even before then the actor has led us to sense and sympathise with the very shy man making painfully awkward attempts to connect with another. 

Mick is introduced as a fast-talking, wisecracking and somewhat sadistic joker – he has several show-off top-speed rants at the frightened Davies that MacKay plays to fully delightful effect. 

But he is also a man alienated from his brother and living in a furnished room somewhere and not in his own home, and largely through some eloquent Pinteresque silences MacKay lets us glimpse a man as lonely and socially ill-at-ease in his way as his brother. 

This is not a play, and Pinter was never the kind of playwright, to hand you everything, all fully explained and neatly tied up. But what it guides you to piece together for yourself – and, indeed, the process of piecing it together – is a rich theatrical experience.

Gerald Berkowitz

Review - The Caretaker  - Old Vic Theatre 2016  
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