Harold Pinter’s slippery vagrant Davies, a stuttering, hunched-over double-dealer, is a winning vehicle for Timothy Spall’s return to the London stage after a 19-year absence. Brought to the Old Vic by Matthew Warchus, The Caretaker sees homeless Davies taken in from the rain to a West London flat by charitable Aston, before Aston’s brother Mick lays him bare as a workshy, duplicitous opportunist.
Spall fills the creaking, cluttered attic in which all the action takes place with tales of his far-flung friends; his lifelong mistreatment; his various monikers; and his ‘papers’ – with a man down in Sidcup, apparently, to be collected anon. Early in the play, his performance has echoes of a regrettably over-friendly exchange with a stranger on a bus. His Davies has a Faginesque quality, brilliantly physically comic if without much subtlety. Lines are replete with guttural outbursts that win cackles from the audience.
George Mackay as Mick, Daniel Mays as Aston and Timothy Spall as Davies
In fact, so many laughs are wrought from Spall’s wheeling-dealing Davies that the tragic in this tragicomedy is somewhat overlooked. There’s emphasis on the farcical – from the squabble about Davies’s bag to his ceaseless dissatisfaction with a pair of shoes, and the sluggish clumsiness with which he drags himself across the stage. George MacKay’s turn as Mick offers yet more humour, as he springs out of the shadows with nervous energy, veins protruding, to launch deadpan mile-a-minute attacks on the unwashed tramp he finds in his home.
Book tickets to The Caretaker from the Radio Times box office
It works, but there is a darkness to Pinter’s 1960 play – his first commercial hit – that only occasionally creeps in. The discordant exchanges between the three characters offer glimpses, but it is in the form of Daniel Mays’s (most recently seen in the BBC’s Line of Duty) Aston that the sense of the collective lack of fulfilment is keenest. A gentler man, who spends much of the action tweaking quietly with a three-point plug, Aston gives the play its climax is as he recounts slowly, and with trademark Pinter pauses, his experience of forced electroshock therapy. It’s a revelatory performance.
Warchus’s three-hour production is an impressive, funny and at times unsettling interpretation of the play. There’s no doubt that Spall is the star, in whose hands Davies becomes a roguish comic hero, but it is Mays’s performance –twitching with leftover, unresolved tension – that leaves the lasting mark.
The Caretaker is at the Old Vic until 14th May
Book tickets to The Caretaker and West End shows from the Radio Times box office