The Caretaker at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre – review

New artistic director Justin Audibert makes his Chichester directorial debut

Jack Riddiford and Ian McDiarmid in a scene from The Caretaker at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester
Jack Riddiford and Ian McDiarmid in The Caretaker, © Ellie Kurttz

The Caretaker marks the directorial debut at Chichester of its new artistic director, Justin Audibert. Not only has he chosen a Harold Pinter classic to kick off with, but he’s bravely done it under the microscopic scrutiny of Chichester’s small and intimate Minerva studio space, where there is no place to hide or to take any wrong turns. Such is the strength of Audibert’s production, that one feels as though Chichester will be in safe hands under his stewardship though.

The grizzly and all-round unpleasantness of Pinter’s exploration of shifting allegiances and exploitative relationships is a meandering puzzlement at times and a devastating indictment of the human condition at others. In the hands of great actors, it is never dull though, and Audibert is working with some terrific talent on stage to bring this bleak tragicomedy to blistering life.

As you take your seats in the Minerva’s compact auditorium, you can almost taste in the air the dank putridness of Stephen Brimson Lewis’ exquisitely designed set. Layers of peeling wallpaper reveal exposed rafters and crumbling plaster in the damp and ramshackle room that the meek and broken Aston brings the seemingly eccentric but grateful Davies into for shelter. It’s an act of kindness that only someone of real innocence would fall into the trap of and is one that will both haunt and hurt poor Aston. His bullying brother Mick, rachets up the tension as he manipulates and controls those around him, before putting to test the theory that blood might just be thicker than water.

Jack Riddiford brings a menacing energy to Mick. He strides with great presence and purpose around the stage, whilst also enjoying moments to quietly lurk in the shadows to sinisterly toy with his prey. The unpredictability of both mood and action is what makes Mick such a terrifying character within the toxic claustrophobia of the three men.

Adam Gillen in a scene from The Caretaker at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester
Adam Gillen in The Caretaker, © Ellie Kurttz

Adam Gillen’s broken and distressed Aston slowly reveals the layers of destruction that he has encountered through his childhood. Gillen gives Aston a gentle innocence and an enduring tolerance that isn’t always without frustration. As he builds to his devastating monologue at the end of the first act, he is utterly compelling as he heartbreakingly reveals the electric shock therapy that tormented his childhood and broke his spirit forever.

Central to it all is Ian McDiarmid’s wonderfully complicated Davies. At nearly 80, McDiarmid sparkles as the unruly and unkempt tramp that is shown warmth and kindness, only to exploit it for his own gain. As his vulnerability shifts to manipulation, McDiarmid fascinates with a performance that leaves the mystery hanging in the air of this homeless, but well-spoken enigma. His constant concern with getting to Sidcup to collect his papers is never explained or explored and McDiarmid deliberately leaves us wanting to know more. As his ingratiating behaviour towards the two brothers begins to crumble, the vitriol and aggression are exposed to wonderful effect.

The Caretaker was Pinter’s first big hit as a playwright, and although it is over 60 years old now, there is still much to explore within its rich text. Audibert is clearly unafraid to take that dive, so it’s very exciting to see what he’ll do next!