Modern day London living in The Caretaker, with Timothy Spall

Directed by Matthew Warchus

Design by Rob Howell

Running until Saturday 14th May

The Caretaker is worth seeing for the mastery of its small starry cast. Even if at points they (well, mostly Spall) muffle the play’s own mastery through the powerful focus on performing – which renders the actual lines incomprehensible on occasion, especially at the beginning of the play. Timothy Spall I read has returned to the stage after a twenty year break from theatre, during which he became a household name by his rodent shaped role as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films. The ratty associations cling to him here in his portrayal of a homeless, vaguely pathetic tramp called Davies. There is something endearing about Davies’s seeming cluelessness, such as in his reaction to the disconnected carcass of a sink, pulled out from under the bed he is to sleep in – “is that in use then?”, or in his slow child-like parade of the smoking jacket he is given. Spall deftly combines this with a streak of suspicious shiftiness and practised shirking, as he exaggeratedly tries on and swiftly dismisses the shoes which will mean he is equipped to go out in the rain and fetch his papers from Sidcup. Which of course he never does.

This was my first time at the Old Vic. It was smaller than I expected and beautiful, with boxes almost creeping on stage and a central chandelier with hipster halogen bulbs blending modern and old world decadence. The rain wet roof on stage slips away as the play begins to reveal a fascinating set. Papers and contracts proving ownership are peripheral to the battle for space, staged in the cluttered room we are confined to throughout the play.

This shared London living feels familiar. The room, crammed with 2 beds, a chair, endless junk, and with a shared bathroom down the hall would surely today be christened a studio flat with character and charged astronomically for rent.  In a London where garages are rented out with luxury apartment price tags, Daniel Mays (Aston)’s charity and kindness in offering Spall a bed for the night, even giving him a key despite the fact he jabbers in his sleep and the flat is hardly roomy, seems suspicious. A landlord with no desire for rent? Acquiring keys to property in London has probably never been so easy. Although it’s guaranteed the flat will never be refurbished, for all wild eyed brother George MacKay (Mick)’s ambitions. The repeated offers to make Spall a caretaker, with duties like polishing bells, feel quaintly old fashioned now though, colliding oddly for me with Mick’s modern expectation hilariously voiced at the end of the play (“said you were an interior designer”). The play has a grand total of two intervals (Pinter is the master of the pause, after all) and whilst additional opportunities for a drink and a bathroom break are always welcome towards the end my attention did begin to wane – the closing scenes feel over long and a little repetitive.

Daniel Mays is fresh from his recent TV role in BBC’s police drama Line of Duty. George MacKay’s face may have been unfamiliar to me but he earns spontaneous applause from the audience after spitting out lines of venom laced with humour at an impressively crazed yet still comprehensible speed (“I met a fellow like you”). He is the perfect picture of a Pinter psycho.  Meanwhile Mays’s quiet sadness is an effective contract to Spall and MacKay’s manic energy. Mays delivers a powerful performance – a lady behind us in the audience left the theatre in sobs during an emotionally intense scene where Aston recounts his traumatic experience of electric shock therapy. Aston wants to build a shed in the garden (which we never see), before anything else. He sits on his bed, filing the same strip of wood.  Interactions with the outside world seem limited and wrought with disappointment. Aston stopped getting a tea from the café nearby long before we met him. He ventures out, hopeful to acquire a jig-saw, but runs into bad luck and returns empty handed. He is surrounded by unfinished, even unstarted projects, (or junk to the uninspired eye), such as an unconnected gas cooker which Davies nevertheless fears will kill him in his sleep. Or a vast tottering pile of yellowing papers which the tramp almost collapses as he ferrets round the flat presumably searching for anything of value.

I overheard a man say to his wife upon leaving the theatre: “I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure what it is I enjoyed”. Indeed the laughter rather abruptly stops a way into the play. Although the three men live together they are very rarely on stage all together. For Aston’s EST scene the stage is lit as though he is alone. In one scene when Davies is talking Aston leaves the room, with Davies voicing angry frustration upon realising he is talking to himself. In response to a Sunday Times reviewer in 1960 Pinter wrote “As far as I’m concerned ‘The Caretaker’ is funny, up to a point. Beyond that point it ceases to be funny, and it was because of that point that I wrote it.” To me this point seems to teeter on the edge of lonely isolation – a human condition of being inside and unable to go out– signalling not just a lack of appropriate footwear but, more wrenchingly, an inability to connect with the world.

I hope to pay the Old Vic a return visit soon.


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