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Review Round-up: Pryce Is Right in The Caretaker

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The Liverpool Everyman revival of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, which arrived at Trafalgar Studios this week (See 1st Night Photos, 19 Jan 2010), marks two important milestones - the 50th anniversary of the play, and the first Pinter production to be mounted in the West End since the playwright's death in December 2008.

Premiered in 1960, The Caretaker is set in the late 1950s in a seedy west London flat where two grown brothers – brain-damaged Aston and menacing Mick - have their lives disrupted by a bad-tempered tramp named Davies. Christopher Morahan's production is led by Jonathan Pryce as Davies.

For the most part, overnight reviews were as positive as those that greeted the production's Liverpool premiere in October 2009. Now, as then, the main focus of attention was Jonathan Pryce's performance as Davies, hailed by Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney as "the most brilliant and devastating, surely, of all Pinter's tramps down the years". However he, along with several colleagues, was less enamoured with the decision to cut the play in two, and there was criticism of the pacing of Morahan’s production. But there were few grumbles when it came to the supporting performances of Peter McDonald's "riveting" Aston and Sam Spruell's Mick - "a study in cool malevolence".

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Jonathan Pryce is in the best possible company when you consider the other actors I’ve seen play Pinter’s charismatic old tramp Davies … what a performance he gives on his own account: wheedling, very Welsh, flea-bitten and hilariously ‘matey’ with his repertoire of thumbs-ups and good-on-yers, spindle-shanked and cloaked in rags like a scarecrow … Pryce’s Davies is a clattering and compelling performance all of itself, the most brilliant and devastating, surely, of all Pinter’s tramps down the years … It would take a fortnight to inventory the contents of Aston’s room as designed by Eileen Diss … My one complaint, and it’s a very serious one, almost worth a one star deletion, is the ruinous chopping of the play in two, destroying the three-act structure, the architectural rhythm of the writing and the correct sense of a passage of time. This barbarism is unforgiveable and if I were Pinter I’d rise in a fury from my grave and beat them all around their bonces.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (five stars) – “It was a formidable performance, but beside the Davies that Jonathan Pryce is bringing from Liverpool to London a limited one. The actor who made his name exuding menace and danger finds far more than that in the role … Davies is a character who can be played in many different ways. He can be peppy, forlorn, bullying, querulous, sly, feral, beaten, pathetic … Pryce managed to be all those things … Christopher Morahan’s production, always strong, turns one of even Pinter’s most enigmatic and suggestive plays into the tale of three dreamers who are also seriously damaged men. So what Pryce gives us is a man who is wary to the point of paranoia - his Davies is a Welshman with multiple names and accents to call on - but so self-involved he can’t see which brother is his friend and which isn’t. He’s also mean yet oddly jovial, ferociously aggressive yet, at the end, pitiable in his loneliness. Is there a more complete performance on offer in London? Can’t think of one.”
  • Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (three stars) – “Pinter's great play is still as shocking and fresh as it was in 1960, still sounding as if every word was recorded straight off the streets … A grizzled Jonathan Pryce is all wounded, smelly mongrel ... It's a strong performance, stronger than the careful production that plays up the crowd-pleasing comedy of the drama … but sometimes seems short on atmosphere and isn't as disquieting as other revivals. It's as if the heightened surreal edges have been planed off, leaving us with something that remains compelling because of the power of Pinter's writing, but which also feels too ordinary. With his secret smile, Peter McDonald offers a clever void as Aston, who left part of himself in the mental hospital, and as his brother Mick, Sam Spruell suggests that while he may incline towards vacuuming with menace, he too is a dreamer, as much a lost stray as the others.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “All the characters have wonderful, passionate, eerie solos and Christopher Morahan's production expertly presents their manoeuvrings, though at times it could do with a touch more pace … Eileen Diss' cluttered set perfectly suggests the way loneliness and self-neglect cause people to accumulate vast miscellanies of junk. Pryce is outstanding as the father figure whom the brothers must in their different ways repudiate. His Davies is seemingly Welsh - the accent takes some getting used to - and sounds as though he has a tennis ball of phlegm in his throat … As the initially genial Aston, Peter McDonald conveys the right mix of charity, dignity and inquisitorial rigour, while Sam Spruell's Mick is slyly articulate and predatory - a study in cool malevolence. The rewards of the play are cumulative: perhaps at first it seems too slow and enigmatic, but you grow attuned to Pinter's language, its rhythms and discontinuities, its repetitions and absurdist fugues. This production, anchored by Pryce's multifaceted performance, potently communicates the simple menace of Pinter's writing.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph(four stars) – “Forty years on it seems perhaps too familiar, despite a gripping production by Christopher Morahan and a superb cast headed by Jonathan Pryce as the disgusting old tramp, Davies … There is that extraordinary ear for dialogue, with its understanding that language can be a form of offensive weapon as well as means of communication … Pryce plays Davies as a sly wheedling Welshman, delivering great gobby arias of self-pity and self-justification with panache, his furtive eyes lighting up as he spies the main chance. You can almost smell him as he stalks the stage, but there are hilarious moments of fastidiousness, as he hides to avoid Aston’s gaze as he undresses for bed … Sam Spruell is a splendidly menacing Mick, all fake friendliness and sudden violence, but also suggests an underlying concern for his brother. And Peter McDonald is riveting as Aston describes the terrible trauma of ECT in a psychiatric hospital.”

    - Theo Bosanquet & Alex Mangini

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