The Caretaker at Bristol Old Vic

A friend of mine who studied theatre nodded sagely when I told her I was off to review a Harold Pinter play. I know of this playwright, although have never seen his work on the stage. Apparently though, this is ‘serious’ theatre and Pinter is very much revered by those in the know. Even though I have been reviewing now for some time, I still get feelings of trepidation with some shows and a fear that it might just be out of my intellectual league. Let me say straight away; this fear was very much unfounded. The Caretaker which is currently on at The Bristol Old Vic felt incredibly accessible, and proved to be an enjoyable and thought-provoking evening.

The adjective ‘Pinteresque’ was spawned early on in Pinter’s career, to describe “a cryptically mysterious situation imbued with hidden menace”. The Caretaker is the play which brought Pinter commercial success and recognition, and this adaption for the stage directed by Christopher Haydon was certainly ‘Pinteresque’ due to the tension that was racked up throughout the two hours and thirty-five minutes of the play. Aston welcomes homeless Davies into his home to offer him shelter from the violence, danger and hardships of life on the streets. Davies has lots of talk about how he is going to get himself together as soon as he can pick up his papers from an old friend, but he spots an opportunity with Aston and is keen to do all he can to stay put in this chaotic but safe little sanctuary. However, on meeting Aston’s brother Mick who is landlord of the property and not so keen on giving shelter to a complete stranger, we realise that the place may not be as safe for Davies as we first think. The three men circle each other throughout the performance, and it becomes clear that each one wants to manipulate the situation for their own benefit, whatever the cost.

I was absolutely engrossed in the performance; over two hours of dialogue passed incredibly quickly for me. The Caretaker is unsettling, mainly in part because the character of Mick has a barely contained air of violence bubbling just under his skin, and you never know for sure when this might explode out. David Judge pulled off a masterful performance in this role. The risk of taking on the role of Mick is that it would be all too easy to push the portrayal of the rapid and extreme mood swings too far, making the role too comedic or somewhat hammy. However, I felt that Judge pitched his performance perfectly. Aston played by Jonathan Livingstone is a man of few words, who calmly holds the piece together while it slowly unfolds that there are more layers to this character than it first seems. When Aston finally reveals the trauma he suffered that have made him the man he is, he had the audience hanging on his every word. Patrice Naiambana’s portrayal of Davies was also superb. He managed to inject a great deal of humour into the eloquent yet verbose Davies, who attempts to portray an air of competence and pride, whilst all the while we can feel the air of desperation and fear of being cast back out into the streets that permeates from this man. Indeed, this was also a delicate balance, if too much humour was to be found in this show then there is a risk that we simply find ourselves laughing at the plight of a homeless man and a man with mental health problems, which would have felt uncomfortable. The balance was struck just right with me feeling glad for the moments of humour which lightened the tension, but that also left me feeling uncomfortable with the darker parts of each man’s character. In all of this, I managed to feel empathy towards all three of them, tinged with a certain amount of sadness.

The set of The Caretaker which was designed by Oliver Townsend deserves a mention in its own right, as it was integral to the claustrophobic feel of the room inhabited by the three men. On first glance, it looks like a bomb has gone off as here is clutter everywhere. An incredibly realistic looking rainy window and the sounds of a storm outside tricked my senses as I felt like the real rainstorm that was happening outside the Old Vic as we came in had been transported into the auditorium. Townsend took inspiration for the set design from Cornelia Parker’s seminal work ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’, an art installation from 1991. Everything seems to be falling apart in the room, and this echoes neatly the disintegration of the relationships between the three men as the piece progresses.

Although originally staged in the 1960’s, the central themes seemed wholly relevant to the current day. Naiambana was born in Africa and then moved to the UK, so his casting was very much in the context of how he could identify with the character through his own experiences. We currently live in a time where so many people across the world are being displaced through war, poverty or climate change and these situations are only going to get worse. The theme of a search for a place to belong and the desperate situations people find themselves in to find a place to call home resonated strongly with what is happening in this country currently.

I would highly recommend The Caretaker. Go and see it if you can, it runs at the Bristol Old Vic until 30th September 2017.

Review by Karen Blake

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