by Harold Pinter
Directed by Matthew Warchus
The Old Vic, London
Saturday 9th April 2016. 14.30
George MacKay as Mick, a man in his twenties
Daniel Mays as Aston, a man in his thirties
Timothy Spall as Davies, an old man
The Caretaker is one of the dozen most important British plays of the 20th Century, in that it was Pinter’s first commercial success, and the one that springs to mind first when describing short, pithy lines of dialogue as Pinteresque. Not a lot happens, but basically Aston has had electro-convulsive therapy, and is now living in a derelict attic filled with junk. Aston has saved an old man from a fight and brings him to the attic. The attic is claimed to belong to his younger brother, Mick, who is street wise and aggressive. Mick’s got a place elsewhere. Mick and Aston both talk about “doing up” the attic and adjoining deserted rooms for rental, but they never get started. They both suggest that Davies can be ‘the caretaker.’
L to R: Mick (George MacKay), Aston (Daniel Mays), Davies (Timothy Spall)
The old man, Davies (aka Bernard Jenkins) is not described by Pinter as a tramp but he smells, has worn out shoes, no home and rambles on. Most people simply call Davies a tramp. H.L. Menken drew fine lines for American usage between hobo, tramp and bum. Apparently a hobo travelled and worked. A tramp travelled but never worked. A bum neither travelled nor worked. Davies doesn’t travel, gets odd kitchen porter jobs and is homeless. I think we’d still call him a tramp in the context of 1960.
The 1960 production featured Donald Pleasance as Davies, and Alan Bates as Mick. This Old Vic production is about the same in star value. Timothy Spall plays Davies, making his return to the stage after twenty years. Daniel Mayes plays Aston. George MacKay plays Mick. It was eerily similar in some ways to last year’s American Buffalo, also with a cast of three famous actors (John Goodman, Damian Lewis, Tom Sturridge) and also taking place in a set completely filled with junk. I’d make the same criticism of both plays … the sheer amount of stuff on stage overwhelmed the cast. In this case much of it is demanded by the text … a non-working, non-connected gas stove that terrifies Davies, an Electrolux vacuum cleaner, a lawn mower, a Buddah and … a masterly touch by Pinter, who as an actor had played Cliff in Look Back in Anger … an actual kitchen sink, which is non functional and is symbolically cast aside under the bed.
Timothy Spall is a quivering, querulous Davies, stuttering and spluttering. He has wild hair. It’s a big performance, but I’ve had mental pictures of Davies and it clashes with them. Daniel Mays is Aston, jerkily limping around with hair shaven halfway, perhaps from the electric shock therapy. He’s not how I see Aston at all BUT in his case, it’s how I will ever after. George MacKay is a slim Mick, dressed in all-black with leather jacket, and was about how I see Mick too.
Davies (Timothy Spall) with the Buddah
Timothy Spall, as such a distinctive screen actor takes the focus of reviews. Domenic Cavendish in The Telegraph complained ‘He doesn’t only drop his aitches, he drops his Ts, his Ns and his Cs. That was not true when we saw him a few days later. He could be hard to follow even on film in Mr Turner, but we were in the Dress Circle, and his projection and articulation were absolutely fine and clear.
Davies (Timothy Spall) bullied by the chilling Mick (George MacKay)
Mick is given some of his long monologues at breakneck speed, so we do miss some nuances, but the overall effect is chilling. He’s like a speed freak, which adds to his menace. The most powerful scene in the play is the one where he bullies the raddled, confused Davies, continually asking him the same questions, continually mispronouncing the fake name, Jen – kins.
Mick and Davies (George MacKay & Timothy Spall)
Mays is totally brilliant, especially in his long speech describing his treatment. The light on the listening Davies (who later complains he didn’t understand it) drops imperceptibly until Davies is enfolded by gloom and the light is only on Aston’s face.
Aston (Daniel Mays)
The rain is a character. When you enter the theatre there’s a sloping roof filling the entire stage, running with water. A lady near us said, ‘Ooh, if we have to watch that for long, I’m glad there are two intervals.’ As the play begins, the roof raises and the set trundles forward to the front of the stage. Throughout you can see rain falling outside the window and then there’s the bucket collecting water from the leaking roof. The bucket gets a few killer lines actually, with loud plops punctuating the dialogue (and everyone looking around).
Having quoted The Telegraph which gave it three stars, I’ll quote Michael Billington in The Guardian who gave it four. He describes it as “a wild comedy of deluded misfits.’ I didn’t think it got that many laughs. Not a wild comedy at all for us. We were influenced by seeing The Truth by Florian Zeller the night before, which is Pinteresque indeed in its dialogue, and also played in short scenes … Warchus’s two interval version of the Caretaker and the blackouts within acts cut it into eight. The Truth had us laughing non-stop, and ran at 90 minutes. The intervals here meant a three hour production. At times it felt long too (always a bad sign). Because Pinter sets up a hypnotic effect with pauses and repetition, length is an issue. I’d assume that his estate don’t allow cutting. I may be wrong.
On the way home, we evolved a novel (and dubious) Pinter theory. In spite of the many references to London locations, we decided the play is inspired by Boscombe, the rundown district of Eastern Bournemouth. Pinter spent 1956 in rep in Bournemouth. Bear with me. Our theory started with my companion’s statement that the massive inauthenticity at the heart of the play (but it’s not a documentary, I stuttered) is the total absence of the demon alcohol. Her qualification for the comment was working in the psychiatric clinic in Boscombe, then later in the probation office. Davies and Aston would have been clients of the first, all three would have ended up as clients of the second. I’m sticking with tramp, not “homeless” because the setting is 1960. A decade later, they were still tramps. The young homeless phenomenon is later. Tramps migrated to the seaside resorts in summer, because sleeping rough was easy, the lowest hotel porter temporary bits of work were available, and holidaymakers tend to be in a generous frame of mind. The vast majority of tramps then were winos, mixed with the severely mentally ill, but they virtually all resorted to alcohol to warm the nights. There is no alcohol in the play. Boscombe was also full of crumbling run-down semi-deserted ex-guest houses.
The character of a tramp has been compared to Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot with the difference that Pinter’s Davies was supposed to be a real down and out, not a tramp as philosopher. She disagrees on the “real.” She even heard “Davies” as “David” whenever Timothy Spall said it, and our tramp’s real name is Davies. His assumed name is Jenkins. Harold Pinter, or rather David Baron as he was as a young actor, spent the summer of 1956 in repertory theatre at the Palace Court Theatre in Bournemouth, right opposite the Pleasure Gardens, where the tramps slept rough if the weather was too inclement for the beach or under the pier. He spent 1957 in rep at Torquay which would have been much the same. Incidentally, the story in Bournemouth which I heard from local stage managers, was that Pinter also worked there separately as stage manager. I can’t find any trace of that on the net, but it was certainly a local tale. In his later film years, he will also have discovered that winos are drawn to outdoor film locations and will rant until given cash to go away. So prevalent was the problem that Minder filming on location in London’s docklands, had its own soup kitchen to keep them quiet.
As my companion pointed out, the references to Davies’ body odour abound in The Caretaker and the smell of wino is distinctive. It’s by no means simply urine, faeces, sweat and unwashed clothes. The main note is the sickly sweet decayed fruit smell of alcohol, with the next most distinctive smell being stale urine. Pinter never got the description right.
We had more local knowledge points. Though it was ten years on when she worked there, psychiatrists still spoke of electro-convulsive theory in hushed, and slightly guilty tones. And they still used ECT, more than in most areas in Bournemouth, I’m told. We compared the stage version of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (we both prefer it as a play) to The Caretaker. She found Aston’s description of his ECT particularly moving, and said Daniel Mays got it absolutely right in feeling, whereas most depictions ( e.g. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) went for zombiefied, blown away. People did remember it and could talk about it. Mays’ limping stance was also perfect. As was his air of ineffective kindness.
And another! Mainly from the probation service. Davies has been set upon by “a Scotch” and rescued by Aston which is why he was brought to the crumbling attic home. A constant complaint from tramps circa 1971 (and why would it have been different in 1960?) is that they were beaten up by the police “for fun.” Allegedly of course. And allegedly, in the area this was a regular Friday night practice of the constabulary who were wont to boast and joke about it. Allegedly. So, yes, they were always being beaten up. Often it was fighting each other, but also it was often … allegedly … the police. “A Scotch” has to serve.
Well, that’s our Bournemouth / Boscombe theory.
One of the issues about early Pinter was he was still working under the censorship of The Lord Chamberlain’s Office, with its sensitivity to effing and blinding. It wasn’t however sensitive to Davies’ fear of “blacks” in the area and that worst of all they might have access to the communal toilet. This predated Johnny Speight’s Alf Garnett.
Overall, I’d rate the play at three stars (along with Cavendish). I’m not sure that it’s the direction or acting, more that I don’t feel the play has worn the passage of time particularly well. Driving home, we listened to a discussion on Trainspotting. Depictions of low life have become vastly more overt in the fifty-six years since the play first appeared,
In Pinter’s text, the vacuum cleaner is decribed as ”an electrolux” with a small e several times. It brings up the Hoover / hoover question, but it is the only place I have seen “electrolux” used generically. Pinter used Hoover with a capital H in The Homecoming.
Methuen Modern Plays text. My copy is marked with slashes for pauses in Mick’s speeches. I know we did a rehearsed and costumed reading once, but have no memory. As my name is in the front, I guess I did Mick!
OTHER REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
Mr Turner (film review)
Ah, Wilderness!,Young Vic 2015