DramaReviewSouth West

The Caretaker – Bristol Old Vic

Writer: Harold Pinter

Director: Christopher Haydon

Designer: Oliver Townsend

Reviewer: Leah Tozer

Harold Pinter’s inspiration for his tragicomic play The Caretaker was seeing two men in the same room, acting separately and in isolation, ‘a moment frozen in time’. Director Christopher Haydon and designer Oliver Townsend’s set for Bristol Old Vic and Royal & Derngate, Northampton’s production, on display as the audience take their seats, certainly feels like a moment frozen in time: suspended in the space are step ladders, drawers, desks, trolleys, toilet seats, light-bulbs, buckets, a door, and two windows with rain dripping down; a scene that feels like it should be in motion, but that is inexplicably still, as if someone has pressed pause.

Once we press play, Pinter’s three very distinct characters occupy the space in distinctively separate ways. Patrice Naiambana’s nomadic Davies ambles and shambles and mumbles and grumbles until, in his overcoat and odd socks, he seems more at home amongst the haphazard furniture than the family who inhabits the muddled room that houses it. The first family member we meet is Mick, the proprietor, expressionless, and prostrate on a mattress at the opening. Once he’s in motion, though, he is, as he later says to Davies, ‘moving all the time’: David Judge, wearing a leather jacket and chewing like a tough-type on a toothpick, uses an impressive physicality to jump, prowl, and pace about the place, commanding the space but uncomfortable in it, something that finds voice later when he explains to Davies in painstaking detail his plans to do the place up. And finally, Jonathan Livingstone’s Aston at first seems the straight man to Davies’ monologuing comedian. He’s serious, slow, and almost stilted, but as all is revealed in a revelatory, heartrending monologue, it also is revealed as a perceptive, astute performance that falls into place, and makes sense, as slowly as he moves. 

The characters are like atoms in space – or time – all existing at once independently of one another and occasionally making contact. Sometimes there’s a reaction, a moment of connection, as when Aston reaches out to offer Davies a new pair of shoes. Sometimes there’s an explosion, as Mick’s staccato, commanding speech reaches a crescendo with the Buddha statue as a casualty. But, most of the time, there’s nothing but space between them: their speeches land somewhere beyond each other and they float further away into space, isolation, and loneliness. It’s effective, and affecting, and, along with the clever, centrally-focused and suspended set, perfectly captures the essence of the play, exploring the connection – to a home or other humans – that is, in itself, the essence of living; it offers us no conclusion, but, crucially, nor does real life.

Pinter’s inspiration may be a moment frozen in time, but in this production, that moment is thawed to feel relevant to an audience in any place, at any time, something that the casting of three black actors really furthers. There are moments of humour, but it’s also heartbreakingly human, showing that the search for home isn’t just about houses, but other people, too.

Runs until 30 September | Image: Iona Firouzabadi

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Heartbreakingly Human

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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