The Caretaker - Tour 1991

Programme Cover

The Caretaker, Tour,
Theatre Royal, Newcastle Upon Tyne, May 1991
Theatre Royal, Bath, June 1991
Comedy Theatre, London, June 1991

Mick - Peter Howitt
Aston - Colin Firth
Davies - Donald Pleasence


Directed by Harold Pinter
Designer - Eileen Diss
Costumes - Dany Everett
Lighting - Mick Hughes
Sound - John A Leonard

Taking care of death in Sidcup
by Benedict Nightingale

If Harold Pinterís 60th birthday has been greeted with fulsome accolades, envious attacks and revivals galore, it is largely because of The Caretaker. This was the play that jolted into life a reputation that appeared to have suffered with the failure of The Birthday Party. Now we can open any dictionary of modern quotations and be sure of finding the querulous pleas and promises Donald Pleasenceís tramp made in Donald McWhinnieís production in 1960.
Thirty years on, things have changed and not changed. Pinter now directs, but Pleasenceís Davies again sets up home in the cluttered attic where the mentally damaged Aston precariously lives, is again teased by Astonís brother Mick, and again hopes to find salvation in downtown Sidcup. This is welcome news, because at 70 the actor is now much nearer the characterís age than in 1960. He catches an exhaustion, a desolation missing not only form his first own performance, but from those of Warren Mitchell, Leonard Rossiter, and the other tramps who have made the play a modern classic.
But wait. Is that to overate it? Well, let us first remember that, while it has driven academics into ecstasies of torturous interpretation, Pinterís own gloss has stayed simple. They have compared Davies with Dionysus, the Wandering Jew, the tempter in an Everyman play, or Everyman himself. But all Pinter has said is that this is ëa particular human situation, concerning three particular people.í

Programme Cover, Bath

Those campus extravagances are certainly testimony to a dramatic potency hard to explain. For many grave critics, the play cannot be the molehill it appears to be, so it must be a mountain in heavy disguise. But Pinter is correct, as his wilfully dowdy and downbeat production proves. The play involves perfectly real people fighting, if surreptitiously and even unconsciously, for territory, security, status and power. There is not a line in which the characters are not subtly watching, feeling out, and manipulating each other. If it is about the awful intricacies of emotional politics.

See the situation from the stance of Mick, a builder with heady dreams for the flat his brother is ruining, most recently by importing the smelly, shiftless Davies. The tramp must go ñ but how? Bully-boy tactics, though helpful in gaining the old cowardís allegiance, are not enough. No, the answer is to pretend to befriend him, slyly encourage him to insult his true benefactor, and, when Aston at last rejects Davies as the greedy, loveless creature he is, to send him packing is inveigled into evicting himself.
Here as always, it is the just conclusion. Yet Pleasence does win some grudging sympathy, more than in 1960. Though he can still angrily punch his palm with his fist, he knows his helplessness, and has traded some of his old aggression for a studied meekness. The absurd social pretensions remain, reflected in a Welsh accent which, though coarsened and hoarsened by bad living and foul weather, has a sing-song gentility to it. The malice is mutedly there, too. But so is defeat, emptiness and, in Pleasenceís bulging eyes at the end, even horror. What is ahead is not Sidcup, but death.
But Pinterís production emphasises the vulnerability of youth as well as age, casting unusually young actors as the brother. Peter Howittís Mick might be a leather-clad tough leaving the pub for a game in Highbury; but there is burning disappointment in him too, as well as covert affection for Colin Firthís Aston, whose blank face and flat, dull voice mask a desperate attempt to clamber out of chaos. The smile they exchange while Davies flounders justifies John Ardenís remark, that one of the playís subjects is ëthe strength of the family ties against an intruderí. What can we call so subtle, suggestive and fascinating a piece but a classic?
The Times, 21st June 1991

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