The Old Vic Theatre, London (****)
I have an abiding image of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. It’s of Donald Pleasance, the scruffiest nastiest of tramps, face forever hollowed in a sneer.
This is not quite as envisioned in its latest incarnation, Matthew Warchus’s epic proportioned version at the Old Vic. For starters, you’ve a bit of a problem with the size of the Old Vic. The Caretaker is physically – and maybe even mentally – all about cramped; a seedy attic filled with bric a brac and lives scarred by prejudice and in one alarming case, by ECT treatment.
Rob Howells’ massive set, more suggestive of the eaves of a cathedral than the attic of a terraced house, certainly conjures up a junk-shop environment – a graveyard of old sinks, wooden boards, piles of old newspapers, electric fires and beds inhabited by the hunched figure of Daniel Mays’ Aston, forever mending a plug and irregular visits from George Mackay’s angular Mick: good cop and bad cop disorientating, manipulating Timothy Spall’s `Bern-ard Jenkins’ or as he admits, the assumed name of Davies.
Spall’s tramp is devious, a ridiculously preening fallen peacock, never happier than when sporting a red smoking jacket obtained by Mays’ kindly Aston. It’s a performance of flourish, an actor’s acting performance. And often very funny.
Pinter, himself an actor, loved actors. This Caretaker is a parade of `performances’ of which Mays is the outstanding exemplar. He does little; you can hear everything; he is becoming the actor of his generation, bar none, and he imbues the damaged Aston with an unforgettable gentleness and dignity.
But the marvel of this revival is the reminder yet again of how brilliantly Pinter manoeuvred his 1960s hermetic drama through character. Nothing is as it appears. Incongruity reigns. Power, domination, cruelty and music hall – they’re all in there with a flick of the Pinter wrist.
The Old Vic audience, packed to the gunnels, seemed once again spellbound by its atmosphere. Warchus’s stylish production, stretched to three hours, gives good value for money, entertaining and moving with the emphasis on entertaining.
`Comedies of menace’ is how former theatre critic, The Times’ Irving Wardle described Pinter’s early plays. Not quite that here but never, ever, a dull moment.
The Caretaker runs at the Old Vic to May 14, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, April 2016