Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Caretaker

Harold Pinter
Bristol Old Vic
(2003)

Fresh from triumph and otherwise on the West End stage with productions of Power at the National Theatre and Sexual Perversity in Chicago at the Comedy, director Lindsay Posner arrives at Bristol with Harold Pinter's early classic, The Caretaker.

For me, the opportunity to enjoy again this early Absurdist masterpiece is a mixed pleasure, falling as it does under the huge shadow cast by Michael Gambon's towering performance in Howard Barker's production a few years ago.

It was one of the most powerful performances I've ever seen; one could almost smell Davies' body odour and despair. So Terence Rigby, although a Pinter performer of some standing, appearing in at least one premiere production, had very large, if smelly, shoes to fill. And indeed Rigby, if I can call him so, acquits himself superbly.

His voice is rich and sonorous and the performance alone is worth the price of admission. First things first though: premiered in London in 1960, The Caretaker is nascent Pinter, Pinter in gestation, still heavily under the influence of Beckett.

Set in a run-down house in London, the play is a three-hander: the tramp, Davies, the ineffectual Aston (Simon Kunz), who is damaged by psychological problems and enforced ECT, and his wide boy and streetwise brother, Mick (Paul Ritter).

Aston befriends Davies and brings him back to his room, crowded with junk and detritus, offering to let him stay. What follows is a struggle for territory, mastery, that most familiar of Pinter themes, with conversation used not to communicate, but to avoid communication; words used as weapons to achieve dominance over another.

The play is richly, darkly comic, with some wonderful passages which Ritter seizes with both hands. Indeed the language is the thing since nothing happens, or little at least, so that the three hours (with two ten-minute breaks) is like designer Christopher Oram's marvellous set, simultaneously cavernously empty and yet crammed.

Davies will never get to Sidcup where he left the papers, which he thinks will sort his life out, fifteen years ago. And Mick will never build the garden shed he plans to. Equally, Aston, who appears the most in command, will only get as far as conjuring up descriptions of the rich interior design scheme he has for the crumbling house. The arrival, at intervals, of raindrops, plopping into the metal bucket suspended high in the room, which they all swivel to look at, marks the only intrusion of reality.

As noted, the performance of Rigby, perhaps best remembered for his appearance in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ("You scratch my conscience; I'll drive your Rolls") is wonderful - where has he been lately? - and dominates the production. Kunz, whose TV credits include Auf Wiedersehn and This Life, is suitably withdrawn; his 'soliloquy' on his ill-treatment at the hands of hospital staff moving; Ritter (The Bill, Out of Hours) gives full weight to the comedy, hands shooting out in all directions, weaving a veritable cat's cradle of words, but is, perhaps, not as menacing as Pinter intended.

The Bristol Old Vic signalled, with the arrival of new artistic directors David Farr and Simon Reade, that a return to greatness might be on the cards for the theatre and the launch of its autumn season, which includes Shakespeare's early comedy The Comedy of Errors and Sam Shepherd's True West, promises much for the future.

Reviewer: Pete Wood