My ticket cost £60. The charming usher said that the performance would end at about 25 minutes to 11pm; it commenced at 7.30pm.

I remember thinking it strange that The Caretaker would last quite so long. Perhaps the pauses would be more Herculean than Pinteresque?

Entering the filled-to-capacity auditorium, a striking sight filled the stage. A triangular roof, occupying much of the stage area. No curtain. But rain…heavy, very realistic rain hitting, but not pounding, the roof. After a minute or two, the effect of the sight was depressing, a sense of greyness enveloping the auditorium. The mood was set.

When the action began, the rain stopped, the roof was flown away and a dreadful bed-sit rolled into view. Marvellous detritus abounds, a real sense of desperate fear everywhere amongst the dilapidated fittings and discarded or broken furnishings and objects. Beds hidden by piles of garbage. A state of acute distress.

This is Matthew Warchus’ production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, the fifth play in his first season as Artistic Director of the Old Vic. After five minutes, I wished, more than the Moon, that the Old Vic had a central aisle or that I had chosen a seat not in the middle of a row. After ten minutes, I wished I was trapped in a barbed wire cage with only razor blades for food.

There is a school of thought that suggests that Pinter was a writer of his time, that his work is done, and that the freshness (in terms of language) and the opening up of form was his true gift to literature, that his plays are now virtually unplayable or pointless. It has never been a proposition which appealed to me, but this production certainly squarely raises the question.

It is unpardonably dreary. Terminally dull. Comprehensively enervating.

Rob Howell’s impressive set design notwithstanding.

Timothy Spall, looking like a character played by Phil Davis in a BBC adaptation of a Dickens novel, all odd teeth, gaunt frame and filthy underwear, is impeccable in the role of Ratty Plays Pinter. There is nothing faintly realistic, funny, odd or intriguing about his performance as Davies. If Alfred Steptoe played Davies, this is what it would be like.

Daniel Mays was a colourless version of his usual self, slightly lost, slightly bumbling, slightly odd. George MacKay wore a leather jacket, slick hair and exuded the prospect of actual violence. Sort of.

The memory of the production which played at Trafalgar Studios, starring Jonathan Pryce, has not diminished in my mind. This play can be a powerful, intriguing and confronting experience.

There was no sign of that in Warchus’ production. No sense of the rhythm of the language either or, indeed, the famous pauses. Incoherence and inexactitude abound. Quite why is the question. Spall is a tremendous actor and MacKay a rising star of great versatility; Mays ought to have been near perfect casting.

But – No.

Pinter wrote to The Sunday Times during the premiere run of The Caretaker as follows:

As far as I am concerned The Caretaker IS funny, up to a point. Beyond that point, it ceases to be funny, and it is because of that point that I wrote it.

Whatever point Pinter had in mind, Warchus did not find it – or, at least, he did not find the funny Pinter had in mind.

So much care has been taken with this revival of The Caretaker that every possibility of caring was taken from me. I fled the auditorium after the first Act. You can do that with impunity when your ticket cost £60 and enduring the production is stealing your life-force.

The one consolation was that I was home, with a glass of wine in my hand, enjoying conversation, before the final curtain had fallen at the Old Vic.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
The Caretaker
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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.