The Caretaker review – star turns but no terror

Old Vic, London
Compelling performances from Timothy Spall, Daniel Mays and George MacKay fail to elevate Matthew Warchus’s production of the Pinter classic

Here is an idea about The Caretaker. Perhaps it is a political spoof? A richly worded satire about the 1945 Potsdam conference. Harold Pinter was a war child, with a strong sense of the ridiculous and the terrifying. Here he is writing about three men manoeuvring for territory. Step up Truman, Stalin and Churchill reimagined as – in no particular order – a spiv, a derelict and a semi-lobotomised ex-mental patient.

Just a thought. Or a joke. The point is that this marvellous drama makes you reconsider it every time it is produced. Sometimes it reads like prophecy. Sometimes it seems to overspill with social realism, almost with social policy: so many wounded wandering through the town in the name of “community”. Sometimes it is a drilling psychological investigation and a slant-eyed look at minds at the extreme.

It has Waiting for Godot as a forebear, which is to my mind less luscious; I’ll take the Pinter every time. At its best it is a Möbius strip of comedy and fear. It is one of the most vital plays of the 20th century.

That is not evident from Matthew Warchus’s new production. It has a terrific cast. It has sparky moments. But it is not nuanced and never driven. Despite obtrusive music between scenes – doomy chords and what sounds like an amplified mobile phone – there is scarcely a hint of terror. Scarcely a sense that these laughs are a sign of teetering on the edge.

A derelict man holes up in an attic owned by two brothers: one cool, one enigmatically slow. The three wrangle for power. With slow-cooked jokes, elaborate topographical descriptions and sudden explicit confessions. The intruder – might the next production see him as a “migrant”? – becomes an energetic gargoyle in Timothy Spall’s hands. His hair springs out at right angles. His eyes goggle. His head is cocked. His mouth hangs slightly open. He is a series of vaudevillian turns.

Timothy Spall (Davies) and George MacKay (Mick) in The Caretaker.
Timothy Spall (Davies) and George MacKay (Mick) in The Caretaker. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Some of these are brilliant. When he puts on a smoking jacket over his unappealing combinations, and sucks on his pipe, he melts into languid superiority. And reminds us that Noël Coward admired this play. Trouble is, though, these are turns not insights. And every new turn is a stammer and a splutter. Pinter pauses may have been abandoned; this production is too long in part because of actor indulgence.

They are good though, these guys. George MacKay, who was directed by Warchus in Pride, and who stood out in Ah, Wilderness!, gives one of the most startling displays of rage that I have ever seen on stage. He completely changes colour; his sinews spring out on his neck as if he were a Messerschmidt sculpture.

Daniel Mays is the brother, who has been released from a mental institution, damaged but apparently calm. He is the still point in the production, and the most nearly frightening. His speech about electro-convulsive therapy, delivered with steady bewilderment, is lit so that he is in isolation from everything around him. This is the most compelling episode in the evening. He seems to be hovering above himself like a drone. Waiting to bomb.

At the Old Vic, London, until 14 May


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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