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Timothy Spall returns to the stage after two decades' absence in Harold Pinter's cryptic classic about three lost souls thrown together in a drab London attic

The combined draw of two British national treasures — actor Timothy Spall and playwright Harold Pinter — should ensure healthy crowds for this latest high-profile revival from The Old Vic's new artistic director, Matthew Warchus. Stepping into shoes previously worn by Donald Pleasence, Michael Gambon, Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Pryce, Spall gives an enjoyably pungent performance that owes more to his rodent-like Harry Potter character, Peter Pettigrew, than his more poignant Mike Leigh collaborations. But the play itself feels creaky and dated, especially as Warchus approaches it with a mix of levity and tasteful reverence that makes this three-hours-plus production something of an uneven endurance test.

First performed in 1960, The Caretaker is a modernist milestone combining elements of kitchen-sink realism, vaudevillian slapstick comedy and Beckettian absurdism. Warchus keeps the setting period-faithful with Rob Howell's visually impressive single set, a giant slate roof slicked with heavy artificial rainfall that slides back to reveal a cluttered, dilapidated, dingy attic room in a half-derelict London house. Aston (Daniel Mays), a lonely misfit with a history of mental health problems, has just rescued homeless tramp Davies (Spall) from a bar fight and invited him into this junk-filled eyrie. Aston offers the irascible, ungrateful, casually racist Davies a spare bed, striking up an uneasy friendship.

But the arrival of Aston’s intense, aggressive brother Mick (George MacKay) unsettles the power balance. The owner of the house, Mick treats Davies as an unwelcome intruder. However, despite his suspicions, he invites this disruptive new arrival to stay on as a caretaker. The opportunistic Davies tries to play the brothers off against each other, but he proves to be an unreliable narrator and an even less reliable friend. Victims become bullies, loyalties shift and pathetically small dreams crumble to dust.

Pinter’s career-making breakthrough play felt bold and daring half a century ago, but the passing decades have inevitably worn away its surface layer of stylistic originality, exposing some of its structural flaws in the process. The blending of farce with tragedy, social realism with experimental artifice and lowlife slang with highbrow eloquence are now pretty standard techniques on stage and screen. His signature brand of prose poetry — staccato repetitions, cryptic non-sequiturs, jazzy loops and charged pauses — have since been developed much further by playwrights like David Mamet and Caryl Churchill, whose work makes The Caretaker sound timid to modern ears.

The saving grace of this production is Spall’s grandstanding performance, which is laced with more comic mischief and dramatic fizz than previous interpretations. Wild-haired, animated and slimmed down to a much leaner frame than his familiar screen persona, the actor gives Davies extra layers of Dickensian color and Shakespearean grandeur. A natural comedian, Spall raises huge laughs with subtle shifts in facial expression and body language, especially after donning a threadbare smoking jacket and adopting a more regal manner. There are flashes of Fagin here, but tragicomic hints of Lear, too. Spall himself has described the character as a "beggar king."

By contrast, MacKay (who worked with Warchus in the film Pride) plays Mick as a high-functioning sociopath, blade-thin and blank-faced in a black leather jacket, his verbose monologues delivered with machine-gun ferocity and deadpan precision. Several of these rapid-fire speeches won loud applause on press night for their sheer technical bravura, as if they were Gilbert and Sullivan standards. Mays has a harder job in trying to convey Aston’s inner torment without resorting to tics and twitches. His zoned-out performance is sensitively played, just not very engaging.

Following the example of other recent Pinter revivals, Warchus loosens up the language a little, compressing those notoriously long pauses and treating the dialogue more like real speech than rigid tone poetry. This small innovation renders The Caretaker more realistic, but also more mundane, foregrounding its rambling and ultimately inconsequential story. By concentrating on comic surface rather than menacing subtext, this production also sacrifices much of Pinter's unsettling dramatic force. Spall's high-voltage performance saves the day, but he is starring in a dusty museum piece rather than a durable modernist masterpiece.

Venue: The Old Vic, London
Cast: Timothy Spall, Daniel Mays, George MacKay
Director: Matthew Warchus
Playwright: Harold Pinter
Set & costume designer: Rob Howell
Lighting designer: Hugh Vanstone

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