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FringeReview UK 2016

The Caretaker

Old Vic

Genre: Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Old Vic


Low Down

Matthew Warchus brings a new amplitude to Pinter’s breakthrough 1960 The Caretaker at the Old Vic; with Timothy Spall as Davies, George MacKay, Mick, Daniel Mays, Aston. Rob Howell designs.



Matthew Warchus’s production of Pinter’s breakthrough 1960 The Caretaker has been revived and revivified at the Old Vic with Timothy Spall as Davies, George MacKay, Mick, Daniel Mays, Aston.

It’s an essay in orchestration. The original power-politics of how Aston brings home a vagrant, Davies, whose own pushiness moves both articulate, vicious brother Mick and the ECT-damaged Aston against him, often portrayed itself as a flurry of words, mainly Davies’ and Mick’s, in sly manoeuvre and defensive improvisation respectively. We’re often lessoned in the unsaid; here the mode of saying is all.

Spall’s Davies flutes and aerates backhanded thanks (donated shoes don’t fit) and sheer ingratitude in arias of self-justification. Spall’s voice describes tessituras of wheedling self-pity, ambitions, self-justifying monologues – he says he left his wife after two weeks for boiling her underwear to prove how clean he is, despite the evidence – snide aggression and pleading. His fantastical hair suggests Falstaff. The amplitude given around this doesn’t extend the world of pauses, it hardly needs to. Pace is leisurely, almost Chekhovian, as if we’re encouraged to see this as a perfect musical realization – Pinter needed musicality; a very great production of a very great play.

It almost convinces. Mick’s words by contrast are wedges of sound, manically delivered monologues on his knowledge of London, 38 bus routes, spaghetti-like topography and fillets of the A-Z spewed out in an assertion of both authority and menace; which more than hints that he sees Davies as a waster – he’s already assaulted him. Indeed Davies proves this, offering to help Aston shift junk from the bed offered him, pulling out a smaller can from a larger and letting Aston take the larger one. Similarly Davies hardly helps making his own bed, though he certainly lies in it. Only a destructive volte-face competitiveness that Davies can’t help deploying is muted in Spall’s performance.

By contrast when Aston returns with new clothes Spall’s Davies struts in his smoking jacket as a flaneur and un-creases a snot-stiff old hanky with a regal crack. He swells as first Aston then Mick offer him the job of caretaker. He doesn’t know however how to start helping, or stop talking.

It’s clear that Mick, in switchback cruelties and casual suggestions to Davies, isn’t entirely well either. He functions by snarly assertion, frantic indirections and trip-wire tests. Any true interaction with his brother comes early, where they all tussle for Davies’ new bag of clothes. Nevertheless he remains watchful and protective of Aston; wants him to make his own mind up. Their co-dependence – Aston too once talked frantically – shades in their damage, the plausibility of taking on a needy, cunning vagrant.

Aston’s monologue, two weeks before the final scenes, disabuses gentility: May carries pain in his face, the un-bewildered fury and clear sense that half his mind’s taken from him, which he resisted violently. He no longer visits anywhere he knew before his treatment. And it’s Aston, who feeling Davies’ ingratitude – which seeks to oust him from the flat, jabbering to prove his existence – who suggests Davies’ next move.

The three remarkable performances edge to new ground. One only hesitates over whether all the rich orchestration fluted over Rob Howell’s truly peeled-back Rachman-like interior, is what the pared-back Pinter meant.