Harold Pinter’s dirty old tramp is a homeless vagrant who has blagged his way into the room of two brothers, Mick and Aston, and finds, by default, the offer of a cup of tea and a bed for the night. He has been done out of a pair of shoes by “those bastard monks” in a monastery on the other side of Luton, and his papers are down in Sidcup.
Jamie Lloyd’s production was seen at the Sheffield Crucible last autumn and has been reconvened for the Tricycle run with the original cast of Bradley, Nigel Harman as Mick and Con O'Neill as Aston. It is a sparkish, quick-moving affair; Lloyd has been an assistant to Michael Grandage on Evita and Guys and Dolls and acquired good habits. But the play is deliberately stripped of all real menace or danger. The mood is of light comedy, which is fine, but not right.
Bradley’s Davies looks like Wurzel Gummidge and sounds like Wilfrid Brambell’s crotchety old Steptoe, streaked with Dudley Moore’s Cockney whine in the Pete ’n Dud days. Unlike the weightier readings of Timothy West or Michael Gambon, say, he is a scavenger, a ferret and a burr on the shifting topography of his own adventures around London cafes and bus stops. He is finally left gasping for air in expectation of another disappointment. He’s got the old red smoking jacket and replacement foot wear, but you imagine he’ll move on soon.
Each brother offers him the caretaker post, but this is just a tactic of domination in the shifting ground of relative pecking orders. Harman’s Mick, more Jess Conrad than Ray Winstone, is a builder with a van and a lot of big ideas. He smiles a lot and loses his rag, which is not the same as maintaining a consistent sinister pressure. The oddness of Aston is beautifully suggested by Con O'Neill’s hoarse falsetto, and his hunched withdrawal over his pointless tasks unravels completely in the great speech about electric shock treatment.
At that point, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting – which begins the show by picking out the Buddha statue and the drip-catching bucket in great cross beams – closes down on O'Neill and his nightmare. Unfashionably, and boldly, the lighting is a poetic mood-setter throughout, and a jaunty electronic soundtrack of Ben and Max Ringham punctuates the black-outs.
What is The Caretaker about? Jostling for approval, building a shed, finding a bed for the night? Isn’t that enough? When Bradley lies down in his manger, a great cloud of dust fills the stage, momentarily obscuring Soutra Gilmour’s massively cluttered set of junk and clobber, where a serene religious statue alone offers spiritual solace; until, of course, Mick dashes it to smithereens in the final scene.
- Michael Coveney
Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from October 2006 and this production's original Sheffield run.
Sheffield Crucible Theatre is honouring Nobel laureate Harold Pinter in style, with a series of events ranging from a cricket match to single performances of one-acters, one of them, Family Voices, with the appropriate cast of Samuel and Timothy West and Prunella Scales. At the centre of the celebration is Jamie Lloyd’s assured production of The Caretaker.
Though engrossing and entertaining, the production leaves the status of The Caretaker ambiguous. Certainly the play shows the timeless quality of great drama – it has not dated as so many of the breakthrough works of the 1950s and 1960s have – but its balance between humour and menace seems somehow less threatening in 2006.
The humour of the non-sequiturs, joyous accumulations of drab names and fractured conversations comes through strongly in Lloyd’s production, as does much of the pathos inherent in the story of the tramp, Davies, taken in by the brain-damaged Aston. However, despite the sudden gear-changes in Nigel Harman’s stylish performance, the menace of Aston’s apparently more successful brother Mick seems under-realised. Perhaps in compensation, Lloyd gives Harman a mysterious Harry Lime moment at the start of the play, all shadow, spotlight and cigarette, with a long, still pause to follow.
As with several of even the most original plays of the period, The Caretaker’s debt to Waiting for Godot seems stronger with the passage of time. They share broad themes, like the never-to-be-completed journey (Davies needs to get to Sidcup for his papers – just one example of Pinter’s masterly use of banal place-names), but also details like the shoes/boots that may or may not fit.
The ambiguity of the play’s situation and plot-line is as intriguing as ever. Is Davies exploiting Aston’s simple good nature? Or is Davies a victim, bullied and tormented by the brothers? Or is it a Sartre-like “hell is other people” situation? Dominance and alliances continually shift between the three characters.
The Caretaker needs three strong, balanced performances to succeed – and these The Crucible’s production certainly provides. David Bradley captures the aggression and wheedling self-pity of Davies and, if the sense of danger is somewhat muted, the subtlety and lack of rant compensate. Con O'Neill’s performance as the timidly obsessive Aston is even more compelling, whether engaged in repetitive, never-completed work on an electric plug or delivering his single great narrative of suffering.
- Ron Simpson