The Caretaker, The Old Vic, theatre review: ‘Harold Pinter meets Steptoe and Son’

The Caretaker at the Old Vic. Picture: Manuel Harlan

The Caretaker at the Old Vic. Picture: Manuel Harlan - Credit: Archant

Of all the shows that Harold Pinter has influenced, Steptoe and Son wouldn’t spring to mind, yet the first half hour of The Caretaker is almost exactly that; a generational odd couple skirting round each other’s anxieties in a filthy, ramshackle apartment.

It’s a disarmingly funny start to Matthew Warchus’s tightly-directed revival as Timothy Spall’s whiny yet vulnerable vagrant Davies is offered shelter by Daniel Mays’s reclusive Aston.

Friction ensues when Davies lands a job as caretaker to the apartment, owned by Aston’s brother, Mick (an enjoyably lightning-tongued George MacKay).

This story of stifled ambition and postwar disconnection gives each character a Beckettian dream – Davies talks of picking up his “papers” from Sidcup, Aston of building a shed, and Mick of refurnishing the flat.

Yet despite the initial comedy, their eventual collapse proves devastating.

It would have been easy for Spall to encourage sympathy for a drifter who “stinks from arsehole to breakfast time”, but through a south London squawk, his magnetic abilities portray both victim and manipulator.

Mays pulls off a similar trick with Aston, who, although the most empathetic, is a stuttering stranger allergic to eye contact.

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The joy of this play is in hearing Pinter’s words hit like icebergs, with the real meaning lurking beneath. As a result, the moments when a spotlight hones in on a heartfelt monologue feel perversely more insincere,

but these are rare in a captivating piece, both faithful and fresh.

The Caretaker is at The Old Vic.

Rating: 4/5 stars.