The Caretaker

Harold Pinter

Royal and Derngate and Bristol Old Vic

Royal and Derngate, Northampton

From 17 October 2017 to 28 October 2017

Review by Sally Jack

Pinter’s breakthrough play, The Caretaker, is also director Christopher Haydon’s first at the Royal and Derngate since leaving London’s Gate Theatre. Co-produced with Bristol Old Vic, The Caretaker forms part of Royal and Derngate’s Made in Northampton series, looking at themes of home and finding a place to belong.

Aston (Jason Livingstone) rescues the homeless Davies (Patrice Naiambana) from a fight, and invites him back to his flat, an unconditional offer of help until Davies can sort himself out with a place to stay. Aston’s brother Mick (David Judge) comes and goes, taunting Davies and eventually offering him a job as caretaker.

Transferring the play from 1960 to contemporary Britain, Haydon adds further nuance to this tragi-comic study of people just trying to meet one of Maslow’s most basic of needs: shelter. The plight of refugees, the homeless and those in need of mental health care resonate, and Naiambana’s depiction of a man who has come from somewhere but has nowhere to go is painful to witness.

Judge gives a chilling portrayal of a man whose anger and aggression are only just under control. Physically imposing, he squats and jumps around Davies who is never quite sure where he is or what his motives are. Livingstone’s measured, slow responses provide stark contrast and quiet power, the calm in the chaos.

Electricity is a recurring motif, from Livingstone’s stark monologue recounting his botched shock therapy, Elena Pena’s persistent sparking and crackling sound design, to a flickering bulb centre stage and pulsing strobe (lighting design by Paul Keogan). Oliver Townsend’s explosion of a set mixes the familiar detritus of modern life with the absurd: broken chairs, half-used tins of paint, and electrical appliances hang suspended, unclear whether they are on their way up or down.

Naiambana’s Caribbean lilt is sometimes hard to follow as some lines are lost, but he perfectly captures Davies’s complexities and ability to ingratiate, evade and, ultimately, do whatever he can to keep his foothold in the flat.

Pinter has said of this play, “it is funny, up to a point,” and this re-staging does not go for laughs at all costs, more a naturalistic depiction of the conflicts in humanity and how we treat one another. Again, there is a sense of a thin veneer of control over lives in chaos.

A tense, absorbing performance which gives new relevance to a modern classic.

(NB Review of opening performance 17 October, press night 18 October)