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 The Theatreguide.London Reviews


For the archives we file reviews of several past productions of Pinter's THE CARETAKER together. Scroll down for the one you want, compare or browse.
Comedy 2000 - Tricycle 2007 - Trafalgar 2010 - Old Vic 2016

The Caretaker
Comedy Theatre Winter 2000-01

When Harold Pinter's play about two strange brothers who take in a tramp and then throw him out again first appeared forty years ago, the combination of Pinter's patented elliptical language and his refusal to fill in complete back stories for everyone confused audiences as much as it intrigued them. (Unsure just what he was doing, most critics jumped to the conclusion that it was some sort of allegory - Humanity torn between Heaven and Hall, that sort of thing.)

But, as often happens with innovative artists, the rest of us finally caught up with him, and when Pinter directed a revival for his original star, Donald Pleasance, ten years ago, the play seemed totally realistic, and no more or less than it claimed to be on the surface: the story of a man offered one last chance in life and losing it.

Now, for its 40th anniversary (and Pinter's seventieth birthday), director Patrick Marber has taken The Caretaker one more step, anchoring it so solidly in naturalism that it hardly seems the same play.

Let's begin with the brothers. Most revivals (and most critical interpretations) have built on the original production's stylized characterisations. Alan Bates' Mick remains one of the seminal performances in modern theatre - jumping without warning from sinister stillness to hyperactivity, rattling off lengthy speeches like the riffs of a jazz musician. And the various actors who played the more sedate Aston have tended to use his reticence and history of shock therapy as the cue to play him as a walking zombie.

But under Marber's direction, both brothers are played well within the definition of ordinary blokes. Douglas Hodge's Aston may be a bit slow of speech, but he's a functioning human being capable of emotion, and that makes a world of difference. His few stories of his past, especially the extended account of his therapy, really bother him; and because they are horror stories to him, they are all the more shocking to us.

Rupert Graves' Mick is also considerably more humanized, and not just an abstract menace (Pinter fans: look how far I got into the review before I had to use that buzzword). His set pieces - the "You remind me" attacks and the "teak veneer" description of his ideal home - aren't just self-contained arias, but the ruminations of a man with a history and a life outside this room.

(Pinter, usually very protective of his text, has allowed this cast dozens of tiny changes that have the cumulative effect of changing the tone from the stylized, almost poetic Pinter-speak to more naturalistic, conversational English - another way in which this doesn't feel like the same play.)

A side-effect of anchoring the brothers so fully in a human world is the redress of an imbalance that Pinter himself allowed in the 1990 revival, which was a star vehicle for Donald Pleasance, with the others pointedly reduced to supporting position. Marber reminds us that the play is about three emotionally wounded characters, not just one.

Which brings us to Michael Gambon's Davies, as filthy, unattractive and unsympathetic a character as you're ever likely to see on a stage. Where Pleasance showed us an aged street fighter whose insecurities were driven by some secret rage and the hints of a dimly-remembered more respectable past, Gambon gives us a feral street rat.

This man has no past other than as scavenger, predator and victim. Left alone in the junk-filled room (a bit overdone in Rob Howell's design), he doesn't wander about in idle curiosity, but scrabbles frantically for something to steal. His choosiness about charity, evasions about his past and pretenses to respectability haven't a hint of pathos or fragile dignity about them (We don't believe in those papers down in Sidcup for an instant).

What they do have is a lot of humour, and those familiar with the play will find laughs they never realized were there before. Where Pleasance gave us Davies the tragic figure losing his one last chance through his own insecurity, Gambon gives us Davies the comic fool, totally out of his depth from the start and only making himself more ridiculous with every attempt to stay afloat.

As I said, this is virtually a whole new play Patrick Marber has found in The Caretaker, and even those who revere the more familiar interpretation will find this an exciting revelation.

Gerald Berkowitz

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The Caretaker
Tricycle Theatre Spring 2007

Harold Pinter's first big success and arguably his best play is given as fine a production as you could hope for in this transfer from the Sheffield Crucible.

If you have never seen the play, run to the Tricycle. And if you have, there are enough new touches and nuances to hold your interest and to offer fresh insights.

A lonely man brings a tramp home to his junk-filled house (which we eventually learn is actually owned by his brother) and lets him stay for a while. Not sure which of the brothers holds the power, the tramp tries to play them both, while they are unable to communicate directly with each other, and use him as a pawn.

The play is ultimately about the difficulties of human relationships and the ways that power politics interfere with our need for connection.

The big change in productions and interpretations of this and other early Pinter plays over the decades is that they were originally done very formally and abstractly, while revivals have rediscovered the simple human stories at their core. As Pinter himself commented to a friend while directing a production of The Caretaker in 1990, 'It's just about an old man, isn't it?'

And it is that human story that director Jamie Lloyd and the flawless cast present to us. Con O'Neill's Aston is no enigma, but simply what he says he is - a former mental patient trying to work his way back to a normality he probably senses he'll never reach.

I've never seen an Aston who made it so clear that he simply wants a friend, just as I've never sensed how deeply important it is to him to build that shed he keeps talking about.

I've seen more complex versions of the tramp than David Bradley gives us - in his 1990 return to the role he created, Donald Pleasance managed to hint at Davies' better days in the distant past. But Bradley makes the man who he is and inhabits him fully - a battered old street-sleeper torn between not being able to believe his luck at having a roof over his head and compulsively risking it all by scrounging for more.

And Nigel Harman manages to avoid the trap every other Mick falls into, of overplaying his menacing and mysterious side, instead letting us see an amiable guy of fairly limited imagination (His decorating plans come straight out of a downmarket catalogue), who loves his brother but somehow can't tell him that.

This is the first time I've felt that he's not following some master plan and that some of his seemingly whimsical treatment of Davies is actually just fumbling.

I can remember when this play mystified critics and audiences because Pinter refused to spell out everything about his characters' psychology. Maybe the world has caught up with it - kids now study the play in school without difficulty.

But mainly it is excellent productions like this one that show us that all the information and humanity was there all along, for talented and sensitive directors and actors to show us.

Gerald Berkowitz

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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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

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Reviews -  The Caretaker - London Theatres  2000-2016
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