As the audience files into its seats at the Tricycle, in the background of the shadowy set of The Caretaker a solitary figure in a leather jacket nonchalantly lights a cigarette. He is simply smoking, leaning against a wall, but he somehow infuses menace over the whole stage. An uneasy silence – a Pinter trademark if ever there was one – falls. And the play hasn’t even begun yet. Jo Fletcher-Cross was in the first night audience…
The Caretaker is Harold Pinter’s most performed play, and the one which brought him his first real commercial success. First seen in London at the Arts in 1960, it then transferred to the Duchess and ran for 444 performances. Since then it has been performed all over the world, adapted for television and film, and had many London revivals. This production, originally seen at the Sheffield Crucible, has assembled a stellar cast to make it stand out from the crowd.
Guys And Dolls leading man and Eastenders heartthrob Nigel Harman plays Mick, who shares a broken-down, cluttered and filthy room with his quiet, damaged brother, Aston (Con O’Neill). When Aston brings home a curmudgeonly old tramp, Davies (David Bradley), a strange relationship builds up between the three of them.
Davies, at first grateful for a chance to rest “while he waits for the weather to break”, and terrified of the menacing demeanour and cruel tricks of Mick, is meek and subservient; waiting for his chance to get what he can from the situation. His shifting allegiance between the brothers as the balance of power constantly changes is both comical and sinister.
Jamie Lloyd’s direction carefully teases out the humour from the absurd situation, but there is also tragedy lurking behind the laughter; particularly in Aston’s heartbreaking confessions about his psychiatric treatment.
Harman’s curiously effete but utterly terrifying Mick casts an unsettling shadow over proceedings even when he is not on stage. The creak of the downstairs outside door which signals his arrival notches up the tension; his unpredictable behaviour means that nobody knows what he is about to do or what kind of mood he may be in. Aston is quiet and down to earth, but perfectly articulate when he needs to be, and with an almost desperate search for purpose that adds pathos to his every action.
The character that everyone always remembers is Davies, the interloper in this strange relationship. Here he is played as a wily, mercenary old codger and is at once unsympathetic and yet almost endearing in his attempts to always be on the winning side.
Lighting designer Oliver Fenwick’s sharp, clever lighting cuts and fades between characters and parts of the set; tense, jazzy music composed by Ben and Max Ringham, combined with the dark, dusty Soutra Gilmour-designed set and Mick’s cigarette ends glowing through the smoke give the production a fifties film-noir feel that effectively increases the sense of mystery.
In the end the balance of power has shifted so many times in this dark and disturbing play that it is impossible to tell who really has the upper hand. Another heavy Pinter-esque silence falls over the three men, frozen in their struggle for supremacy over each other.