Hearing that Timothy Spall was appearing on stage after a lapse of 19 years was all I needed to book tickets to see Matthew Warchus’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. And then it was announced that Daniel Mays was also in the cast ….. a double bonus.
The Caretaker was Harold Pinter’s first play to garner substantial commercial success. Written in 1960, it centres on an extremely shabby room crammed to the gunnels with miscellaneous objects; in fact everything including a kitchen sink! It is into this scruffy, less than clean space that an equally scruffy, nay dirty tramp is taken by Aston, a troubled and damaged young man. Aston has offered the tramp, Davies, alias Jenkins (a little confusing!) a place to stay until he straightens himself out. This straightening out requires, amongst other things, a decent pair of shoes and a trip to Sidcup to collect his identity records, Davies insisting that the latter cannot possibly occur without the former. On his uppers Davies might be but he insistently knows what he wants and from the point of view of a lodger, especially a non-paying one, comes up very wanting, especially as his sleeping habits entail much loud groaning. Unbeknownst to Davies, the room and the remaining unseen boarded up rooms, belong to Mick, a coiled up spring of a man, with the verbal dexterity of a semi-automatic rifle, totally at odds with his slow, gentle younger brother, Aston.
So there we have it, three very different men, a room and a sense that anything could happen, probably bad, but in fact nothing does. But this is Pinter, so the long running time is hardly noticeable, transfixed as we are by the writing as well as the strong performances.
There has been much written by critics about Timothy Spall’s take on Davies, a too high percentage of it less than complimentary. As we know, plays are open for interpretation, which is what makes the theatre such a wonderful form of entertainment. No two directors approach a play in the same way, making comparisons with other productions, whilst interesting, not terribly important. Many of the criticisms with this version are focused on just that; comparisons with Spall’s interpretation and others who have been more sinister. Thankfully I’m unable to do that because this is the first version of Pinter’s wonderful play that I have witnessed. All I can say is that Mr. Spall, as with all his performances, makes Davies his own. If he isn’t as menacing as previous portrayals, so be it, for he is immensely entertaining and believable in his own, larger than life way. And the unhinging uncertainty about what might happen to anyone of the three characters is here; it’s in the writing.
Timothy Spall’s Davies resembles a gargoyle, all sticky out hair, sticky out teeth, a rat of a man, with his eye on the main chance. He wheedles, repeats himself continually, lies, irritates and enthralls and, yes, is often very funny.
George MacKay as Mick in his tightest of tight leather jacket, initially menaces Davies, delivering his long speeches with lightning speed, rendering the tramp in a state of utter bewilderment. But there is one thing of which Davies is aware. This brother is completely unpredictable.
By contrast, the always brilliant Daniel Mays, plays Aston with a quiet intensity, his malleable face registering everything his character is unable to voice. The silence that accompanies his monologue about what happened to him when committed to a mental hospital and forcibly subjected to ECT is as if everyone is holding their breath. It is a show stopping moment.