Returning to the stage after an absence of almost two decades, Timothy Spall simultaneously makes and breaks this weirdly flamboyant take on Harold Pinter’s 1960 masterpiece ‘The Caretaker’.
No doubt about it, his performance as self-serving drifter Davies is phenomenally entertaining. Surprisingly agile and unabashedly cartoonish – all protruding fangs and crazy hair – Spall plays Davies like a bizarre mix of Russell Brand, Mr Twit and a very ill Victorian tramp. At first his utterances are barely comprehensible. But as he starts to adjust to life in the peculiar London garret he’s ushered into by Daniel Mays’s gentle loner Aston, he grows more ostentatious and self-assured, the jester in a strange court of Aston and his sadistic brother Mick (George MacKay), the owner of the dilapidated building.
But is Spall’s performance the right performance? Director Matthew Warchus is a lavish showman – not a quality associated with the brooding, cryptic Pinter. I’m all for breaking a few rules (Jamie Lloyd’s recent ferocious assault on ‘The Homecoming’ showed you can pull off Pinter without fannying around with pauses) but Warchus’s expansive production and the cuddly grotesque at its heart never unnerve you as they should. The feeling of everything being overegged is compounded by Rob Howell’s monolithic, almost Tim Burton-esque set and Warchus’s baffling decision to have two intervals, which he also did with last month’s ‘The Master Builder’ – is the Old Vic boss trying to drive up bar takings?
Still, much is great here, and it’s really just Spall’s jarring ebullience that stops it clicking. By contrast, Mays delivers the first restrained performance I’ve ever seen him give, and is superb – quietly upsetting as Aston, a man no longer fully there. While Mackay is absolutely terrifying, an almost pitch-perfect Pinter psycho.
The play itself remains phenomenal, a vision of the desperate, dark fringe of society, specifically of London, that feels more pertinent in the age of austerity than it did in 2009 when the last major revival of it was performed. Maybe that makes it all the more perverse that this is such a self-consciously ‘fun’ production, but clearly there is something to be said for fun. And there’s a lot to be said for Timothy Spall – don’t leave it another 19 years, please.