Review: The Caretaker by Harold Pinter

Review: The Caretaker by Harold Pinter

Rating:

The finger-zapping Star Wars malcontent Emperor Palpatine has fallen on hard times in Chichester. Very hard times. Assuming the wizened, piping human form of actor Ian McDiarmid, he’s become a whiffy vagrant in Harold Pinter’s sinister three-man drama from 1960, The Caretaker.

The play is set in a festering attic room on Chiswick High Road of the post-war era — long before BBC big-wigs moved in to posh up the postcode. McDiarmid is a faintly mendacious dosser, Davies, who is taken in by Aston, a mousey recluse with a tragic history of psychiatric disorder. Their uneasy friendship is interrupted by Aston’s spivvy brother Mick, who takes exception to Davies’s presence.

Justin Audibert’s morbidly fascinating production opens a trapdoor on a lost post-war universe and takes few pains to gloss it. The snarling racism of the period remains intact, alongside Pinter’s legendary menace as Mick and Davies vie for control of the dank fleapit attic, threatening each other with proverbs and non sequiturs.

Review: The Caretaker by Harold Pinter

Ian McDiarmid as Davies in the theatre production of The Caretaker at Chichester Festival Theatre

The dialogue is famously bizarre and inscrutable, with Davies’s lines like ‘I got a bad need for a good pair of shoes,’ or my enigmatic favourite, ‘the bastards at the monastery let me down again’. And yet underpinning all this is a sense of panic and desperation — of which the racism is a symptom.

That’s what McDiarmid nails as the shabby old man who is jittery, prickly, needy, surly and manipulative. His filthy clothes and pink skin even appear to be peeling like the wallpaper in the mouldy sock of a room that is Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set — fitted with two rusty beds and any amount of junk like an old scrapyard.

Telling Aston’s tale of being forced to have electro-convulsive treatment in hospital, Adam Gillen ensures that the play is also moving (unusually for Pinter). But where his performance is sad, tender and vulnerable, Jack Riddiford as his brother Mick lays on weird bullying threats of violence, pulling on leather gloves as if about to strangle someone.

Adam Gillen as Aston in the theatre production of The Caretaker at Chichester Festival Theatre

Adam Gillen as Aston in the theatre production of The Caretaker at Chichester Festival Theatre

Ed Clarke’s sound design meanwhile adds ominous creaks and plumbing gurgles — together with the occasional thud of a drip into a bucket suspended from the ceiling. Background cello music is nicely atmospheric, but also a touch sentimental and therefore very un-Pinteresque. We’re not so much meant to enjoy Pinter as be unnerved by him.

■ We should probably be grateful that the Royal Court is at last staging a play in which the writer displays some aptitude for language.

But when prizes are handed out for the oddest play of the year, The Bounds — about a proto-football match in Tudor Northumberland — will likely lead the pack. The title of Stewart Pringle’s work refers to the boundaries around Allendale and Catton: two villages locked in battle over an inflated pig’s bladder. A pair of benighted peasants watch the ‘match’, and comment in obscene, cod-historical Northumbrian, like an unusually deranged episode of Radio Five’s 606 with Chris Sutton and Robbie Savage.

The big idea is that the spectators represent today’s red wall constituents, abandoned by Westminster (or, back in the day, the Tudor Court in London).

As a polemic, it needs greater dramatic development.

Instead, Pringle falls back on footie-related bickering. Ryan Nolan amuses (up to a point) as the colourfully cursing Allendale fan who thinks people from Catton are ‘witch fiddlers’. Lauren Waine, as his scornful female friend, is still fuming about having once been subjected to religiously enforced, misogynistic torture. A posh Catholic on the run (Soroosh Lavasani) tries to set them straight on politics and astronomy. And the author then tacks on a Hobbesian message about how human existence is nasty, brutish and short.

Otherwise, staged on a low mound like Waiting For Godot, Jack McNamara’s production is a very peculiar apocalypse, with no particular end game.

The Caretaker (cft.org.uk) and The Bounds (royalcourttheatre.com) run until July 13.

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