The Caretaker - Lyttelton 1980

Programme Cover

The Caretaker, Lyttelton Theatre, London, November 1980

Mick - Jonathan Pryce
Aston - Kenneth Cranham
Davies - Warren Mitchell


Directed by Kenneth Ives
Settings - Eileen Diss
Costumes - Barbara Kidd
Lighting - Mick Hughes

Review by Irving Wardle
As to Chekov, one goes back to this beautiful play not as much for startling new insights as to see how the characters have been getting along; and it is good to report tat I have never seen them in better shape since their first appearance 20 years ago.
Warren Mitchell clearly born to play Pinterís tramp, and he is superbly partnered by Jonathan Pryce and Kenneth Cranham as the brothers who give him a foothold in the derelict house. This production is the work of Kenneth Ives who has also directed a separate television version, with the same cast, to be shown on BBC 1 next year. This unusual arrangement arouses some uncertainty about the intended scale of the Lyttelton show; the size of the set being a crucial element in any treatment of this play.
In the film made under Pinterís supervision, the action was cramped into a tiny crowded room in which the actors could hardly move; all talk of fixing it up for civilized habitation was a joke. But on Eileen Dissís platform stage with plenty of open space between the rusting cooker and the iron bedsteads, the place has got possibilities. If ever Aston manages to build his garden workshop, it may even turn into a desirable residence.
This, in turn, opens up startling new possibilities within the play itself. Previous productions have imprinted fixed images of the brothers: the taciturn, brain-damaged Aston performing small acts of kindness, and the fast-moving, dangerous Mick, never more brutally ironic than when he appears to be friendly. Danger is Johnathan Pryceís native element, and his Mick is an malevolent as any I have seen. But there are key moments when he abandons his teasing attacks on the disreputable visitor and speaks his mind. For once, his fantasy of transforming the house into a colour-supplement paradise is not a joke. He delivers it, lying flat on his back, as a reverie; only coming to when Davies asks who will be living there, and gets the answer ëmy brother and meí.
I find this a great enrichment of the play. It leaves the cruel comedy intact, and likewise the barrier of silence between the brothers; but it exposes Mickís motive, the mainspring of the whole action, as a labyrinthine approach to regaining the lost contact with Aston. Thanks also to the amount of space at their disposal, the politics of the relationship between two insiders and one outsider are tellingly inscribed in the groupings; as where three sets of eyes are raised at the sound of water dripping from the ceiling; and you realise that of the triangle, two are responsing as property owners and one as someone who wants to keep his bed dry for the night.
Warren Mitchellís Davies is pushed to the treacherous, lying, cowardly and pathetic limits. He opts for a Welsh accent, which brings out its rhythms with the fervour of a lay preacher. He has also invented an elaborate range of characteristic gestures; enraged nods from the waist, a flailing hand that carries his whole body round with it, expressions of homicidal threat in which he takes care not to budge an inch towards his opponent. It is the speed of change and contrast between the gestures that count; and the sight of a wheedling underdog gradually swelling into snarling bully until he overreaches himself and reverts to plaintively despairing appeal to Kenneth Cranhamís gently obdurate Aston.
One point of the play is that Aston does Davies a grave disservice by giving him a taste of security, and thus incapacitating him for a return to living rough. Hence the extraordinary reversal of sympathies at the marvellous ending; and the feeling, enshrined in this production, that these characters will never be out of each othersí company.
The Times, 12th November 1980

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