The New York Times once said of Pinterism that it offers 'maximum tension through minimum information', and this certainly seems to be the case with the author's classic 1960 study of inner-city lowlife, The Caretaker.
At the start of the play we're shown a grungy, Rachman-esque attic, into which three characters walk: a surly greaser (who momentarily stands and scowls in silence before loping off), a whingeing old tramp and a reticent, but neatly dressed, young man. The tramp jabbers on about a recent altercation, while his roommate sits stoically on a bed changing a plug. Naturally, a huge question mark hangs over who these people are, and what they're doing in such awful surroundings.
Slowly though, over the course of three acts, a snapshot of their squalid existence comes into focus. We learn that the greaser and the other young man are brothers, and that between them they own the building. Also, that the nasty looking brother is a terrible bully, and that his sibling's silence can be explained by the fact that he is mentally ill.
The other thing you notice is that The Caretakerfunctions with a very slender storyline - the tramp is offered a bed and a job as a caretaker by these men, but then annoys them so much that they evict him - and that the real meat of the drama is found in the often meaningless banter that the trio bounce off each other.
Most of this is brilliantly observed, highly amusing stuff, filled with everyday banalities and colloquialisms. And doing real justice to it is Michael Gambon who is simply mesmerising in his role as the racist tramp, Davies. He really is a convincing sight, as he stands on stage, greased hair slicked forward, spittle dropping from mouth, hand scratching his groin, ranting against all and sundry with unintentional irony. (Olivier judges please take note.)
Pinter regular Douglas Hodge, who was in last year's Betrayal at the National, offers a sensitive supporting performance as Aston (which reaches its zenith in the scene where he talks about his ECT treatment), though if I have a criticism, it's that his mockney accent is a trifle heavy at times. And Rupert Graves, taking a couple of steps down the social ladder from his usual roles, is slimy and menacing as Mick.
Adding to the sense of disquiet is Rob Howell's atmospheric set, all junk, cracked plaster and black mould. This eventually becomes a potent symbol of the failure of Mick and Aston, despite their ambitious plans, to make anything much of their lives.
This 40th anniversary production is kept sprightly and contemporary thanks to the directorial talents of Patrick Marber (himself no mean playwright, and oft described as the Pinter of his generation). But it's Gambon's brilliant performance that wins the day, and is in itself reason enough to buy a ticket.