A marvellous recreation of the original...a strong, oak-cask-matured belter of a performance.
Still one of the greatest of post-war British theatrical achievements.
Thirty years on, Pinter's The Caretaker is still holding its own: a spiritual shocker, tough, cruel, and brutally funny
---John Peter of THE SUNDAY TIMES
...[Pleasence] is still as insinuating and compelling as ever. You long to get rid of him, but you can't take your eyes off him.
Howitt hints at the buried feelings of tough, leather-jacketed Mick; Firth is wholly convincing as Aston, especially in the long, calm, chilling account of his experience at the hands of the doctors.
---John Gross of THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH
[Pleasence's] hypnotic energy, his burst of sinister physical violence, his ingratiating slyness and his ultimately impotent power play to carve a niche even in this leaky attic dump, have gained rather than diminished in their intensity.
...[Pleasence] has lost none of his stage presence, nor his masterly comic timing.
He exhibits a devious, highly watchable, pathos as the shifty Davies, who fails to realize the threat in the fraternal silence confronting him.
Goethe once said that a play should be symbolic: each bit of the action must be significant in itself and point to something still more important behind it. That is a precise definition of what happens in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, now fastidiously revived by the author at the Comedy, in that the action is both realistically plausible and poetically suggestive.
Seeing the play again for the first time in 11 years, one is surprised that it was ever thought enigmatically obscure. On the surface level, it is quite clearly about the expulsion of the old tramp, Davies, from his temporary Eden after he has artfully tried to play off one brother against another. And, on the poetic level, what hit me this time round was Pinter's preoccupation with pipe-dreams. Mick dreams of turning a junk-filled attic into a gleaming penthouse, Aston of building a garden shed and Davies of going to Sidcup to get his papers. Like O'Neill (but at half the length), Pinter suggests that we all keep reality at bay through protective illusions.
The play grips us because the symbolism arises directly from the action. But, seeing it again at the Comedy, one is also reminded that Pinter is a Cockney humourist and master of what Peter Hall calls the "piss take." Mick, the abrasive landlord, is the first in a long line of spivvy Pinter bullies who seek to establish spiritual dominance through the send-up: indeed the highlight of the play for me is the speech where Aston takes on the itinerant Davies by browbeating him with an A to Z tour of the London boroughs. As so often in Pinter, the piss take becomes an instrument of power.
What makes this revival unusual is that Donald Pleasence at 71 returns to the role of Davies he created at 40 and my feelings about this are equivocal. Mr. Pleasence retains superbly many of the old mannerisms: the jabbing right hand, the wheedling aggression, the defensive hunch.
He also adds something I don't remember before: Davies' sharp-witted ability to see through both his own and Aston's illusions. But there is now a twilit pathos about the character which is new: my own feeling is that, in this least sentimental of plays, you should never feel sorry, as you do here, for this manipulative old hobo.
Mr. Pleasence has the difficult task of competing with memories of himself. The two brothers, however, have no such problems. Peter Howitt's Mick is a lovely study of a flashy, leather-jacketed bruiser who you feel, like Lenny in The Homecoming, conceals his inner weakness under a welter of fast talk. And Colin Firth's Aston, suffering from electric shock treatment, is a touching portrait of a gentle, slow-moving giant reminiscent of a different Lennie in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.
The one thing missing in The Caretaker is inevitably the sexuality that informs The Birthday Party and The Homecoming.
But it remains a richly fascinating play that turns a cluttered West London attic (beautifully realised by Eileen Diss through tottering piles of old papers, a lawnmower, a gas-stove and the famous suspended bucket) into a microcosm of the wider world with its battles for dominance, power and territory and with its search for some consoling fantasy that will protect us against the reality of our own selves. Pinter, in fact, gives us infinite riches in a little room.
Review © 1991 THE GUARDIAN. All Rights Reserved.
The critics who filed unsuspectingly into the little Arts Theatre in April 1960 to see a new play by a struggling young writer had little idea that they were present at a key moment in the history of modern theatre.
By the time the curtain went down on The Caretaker, some two and a half hours later, everyone knew that Harold Pinter had a hit on his hands. Just how big a hit, no one could guess.
Since then, there have been nearly 80 major, and countless minor, revivals of the play worldwide and the text is taught alongside Shakespeare on A-level syllabuses.
More than 30 years later, we have a chance to savour some of the excitement of that landmark first night with what must be the definitive production of The Caretaker.
Pinter, himself, directs, with appropriate reverence for the text.
Donald Pleasence, who created the role of the tramp Davies at the Arts Theatre in 1960, adds the insights of the intervening years to season a performance of depth, subtlety and sly wit.
All three characters in the play have dreams which they will never fulfill. Aston, a slow-witted misfit who offers the tramp a bed in his squalid attic room, plans to build a garden shed but has got no further than acquiring a few planks.
Aston's brother, Mick, a malicious wide-boy, plans to "decorate up" the derelict building.
The brothers offer Davies the job of caretaker but he has set his sights on Sidcup, just as soon as the weather breaks and he gets a decent pair of shoes.
Colin Firth's touching Aston has an unexpected dignity. He summons pathos as much from his considered reflections on Guinness (heartbreakingly, Davies responds with a comment on the weather) as with his account of his terrible experiences in a psychiatric hospital.
Peter Howitt plays the volatile Mick with the assured swagger of a lager lout, more cocky than menacing.
The dialogue, fragmented, poignant and full of hilarious non-sequiturs, distances the characters rather than brings them together. The richly idiomatic language is as fresh as ever, reinforcing the timelessness of a play which has justly become a modern classic.
Eileen Diss's set balances the claustrophobic clutter of the room with a cross-section roofscape promising a glimpse of escape -- to Sidcup and beyond.
Pinter, with a keen eye for nuance, gives us a masterly production of a masterpiece.
Review © 1991 THE LONDON EVENING STANDARD. All Rights Reserved.
Everyone knows, because we have been told so often, that Harold Pinter's The Caretaker is a modern classic. Like Waiting for Godot and Look Back in Anger, it is one of the key texts that are said to have revolutionised British theatre. It has been staged all over the world, and since its premiere in 1960 hardly a year has gone by without a major revival somewhere. But just how good a play is it?
I confess I approached Pinter's own production of his most famous work at the Comedy Theatre with some scepticism. His reputation as our most outstanding living dramatist has always struck me as suspect.
Again and again in his plays, one feels that he creates his distinctive dramatic atmosphere of enigma and vague menace by the simple trick of withholding basic information, lending the humdrum dialogue an aura of elusive significance. And there seems to be a coldness in his writing too, a sense of detachment and rigorous control, as if the characters were little more than specimens in some scientific experiment. On the page at least, it is easier to admire Pinter's plays than to like them.
The revelation of the present revival is just how enjoyable an occasion it is. The endless agonising over what the play means, the search for hidden symbols that has led critics down so many blind alleys, suddenly seem irrelevant. From the moment the curtain goes up on the seedy lumber-filled room where the action takes place, the imagination is gripped. The characters are real and intriguing, and the shifts of power in their triangular relationship are fascinatingly charted.
Better still, The Caretaker is often splendidly funny. The tramp Davies's fear that he might be gassed by a disconnected old cooker could have come straight from Thurber. And though countless theses have been written on Pinter's bleak depiction of man's failure to communicate, the dialogue here is full of life and humour, meticulously and often hilariously pinning down the way people actually talk, the hesitancies, the evasions, the obsessive tricks of speech. He creates such rich demotic poetry out of improbable subjects like suede shoes and London bus routes that you don't want his characters to stop talking.
But perhaps the most surprising feature of this exemplary production is its humanity. As the older brother Aston, Colin Firth's hypnotic account of the terrifying treatment he received in a mental hospital sends the shivers coursing down the spine, and throughout, with his ugly voice and awkward posture, he movingly captures the character's wounded inadequacy, diffident charity and aching need for friendship.
Peter Howitt is a charismatic Mick, veering disconcertingly between pouncing menace and garrulous charm, but the chief acting honours go to Donald Pleasence as Davies, the role he first created more than 30 years ago. It's impossible to take your eyes off him as he wheedles, blusters, threatens and betrays, and the actor captures all the character's most unappealing features with repulsive, compulsive precision. But here too, both play and performance demand emotional involvement. Davies is vile, but he is also human, a pathetic old man with nowhere to go, and Pleasence's broken delivery of his final, desperate speech goes straight to the heart.
I've often suspected that there is less to Pinter than meets the eye. This production persuaded me that there might be a good deal more.
Review © 1991 THE DAILY TELEGRAPH. All Rights Reserved.
Photos by Ivan Kyncl
Photos © 1991 Ivan Kyncl /
TRIUMPH PROSCENIUM PRODUCTIONS LIMITED. All Rights Reserved.
[ THEATRE | HOME ]