Royal & Derngate Theatres, Northampton – until 28 October 2017
I began to think it might be Monopoly. The volatile Mick in Pinter’s The Caretaker seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of London’s streets, with the start of an anecdote about most of them. He scares the bejesus out of both Davies and the audience in the Bristol Old Vic and Royal & Derngate co-production.
The Royal’s intimate stage is cluttered with stuff. You know? Stuff. Most of it broken, useless, defunct. There are chairs with three legs, a bit of a gas stove, part of a sink, old computer monitors, filing cabinets, a ladder…all that’s missing is a cuddly toy. It’s a hoarder’s dream – and must have taken designer Oliver Townsend and his team hours to fix the superb set in place.
The Caretaker, written in 1960 and arguably one of Harold Pinter’s most performed plays, is intriguing. There is hardly any real plot yet you find yourself becoming increasingly absorbed into the Godot-like ennui of Mick, Aston and Davies’ existence. Its comedy is so dark that, on occasions, it is almost embarrassing to be heard laughing. There are moments of pure awkwardness when the play’s central character, Patrice Naiambana’s Davies, finds himself caught in the middle of difficult conversations and situations.
For him, moving in with Aston and, by association, his unnerving brother, Mick, is like stepping out of the frying pan and into the fire. This “gentleman of the road” (we know he’s a gentleman because he’s dressed in luxury Barbour and what look like Birkenstocks – though everything else is threadbare) has been earning a few bob sweeping floors at a cafe when he was sacked for fighting.
He is befriended by the taciturn Aston (Jonathan Livingstone) and taken back to a ramshackle house where he has been living and working as its handyman and caretaker. It turns out that the house is owned by Mick (a quite terrifying turn by David Judge) who is hoping that the job will be occupational therapy for his rather slow-witted brother.
These three men live in hope of, well, something. A better life, happiness, security, possibly even a lasting friendship, but their lives, like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting For Godot, seem on hold. Nothing progresses – not even the mending of a plug on a toaster. They are all, thanks to their own individual circumstances, isolated and alone, each man an island. Aston says very little throughout the play. Livingstone maintains a benign demeanour, ignoring the constant criticisms of his benevolence with stoicism.
You’d think Davies would be grateful for a bed and roof over his head as it appears to rain throughout the narrative, but he does nothing but moan and cadge for freebies.
He wants cash for a cup of tea, a new pair of shoes and clothes and then complains bitterly when they don’t fit or are the wrong colour.
Aston absorbs it all with quiet resilience but there is one scene, with the actor giving a moving and beautifully understated performance, that reveals his troubled past and it’s harrowing.
In contrast to Aston’s stillness is David Judge’s blistering turn as Mick who, from the moment he appears, is a tightly coiled spring. The wrong word or move from Davies and he becomes menacing. It’s a mesmerising performance.
Completing the dynamic is Naiambana’s mostly upbeat Davies, a man whose past is secreted away in Sidcup, an opportunist who milks the unexpected charity from both brothers.
He’s all bluster and bombast who lives by the seat of his pants. It’s a thoroughly engaging performance that contrasts nicely with the deeply unnerving brothers.
The Caretaker runs at Royal & Derngate until October 28.
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