From left, George MacKay, Daniel Mays and Timothy Spall in 'The Caretaker'. Photo: Manuel Harlan
From left, George MacKay, Daniel Mays and Timothy Spall in 'The Caretaker'. Photo: Manuel Harlan © Manuel Harlan

If only it would stop raining. Then Davies could get down to Sidcup, get himself sorted; Aston could build his shed; Mick could embark on his ambitious schemes to create a luxury penthouse. But it doesn’t. It rains, incessantly — on the roof of Rob Howell’s set, through the roof, outside the window. So the men are marooned: trapped in a grotty, junk-packed attic, wrangling over possession of it. Matthew Warchus’s fine — if sometimes overstated — production draws out many of the depths of Harold Pinter’s 1960 masterpiece, but particularly the possibility that this tattered room and its three washed-up inhabitants are a microcosm: a grim picture of a damp, end-of-Empire Britain full of empty talk and broken dreams.

It is perhaps fitting, then, that Timothy Spall’s performance as Davies, the shambling old drifter brought home by Aston, frequently calls to mind chancers from the past: Falstaff, Fagin, vaudevillian clowns. Spall is mesmerising: a raddled, ranting windbag with Brillo-pad hair, filthy long-johns and outsized teeth. He speaks in torrents, jabbing his finger at no one, ranging up and down the scale operatically — arias of fantastical nonsense and racist, vindictive paranoia.

It reminds us that Davies is a man with nothing, who, when asked where he was born, responds: “What do you mean?” He fills the space with words. It can become overly baroque, however, and while Spall catches both the fear and the wily nastiness in the character, he overplays the comedy. He’s at his best when, threatened with eviction, he sits shrunken and shocked on his bed: a lonely, frightened animal.

He’s met with beautifully pitched performances from George MacKay and Daniel Mays as brothers Mick and Aston. Where Davies uses words as shields, MacKay’s Mick, slick, slim and scary as a blade, deploys them as weapons, subjecting Davies to disorientating rapid-fire interrogation or stacking up fantastical descriptions of his property plans. By contrast Mays, as Aston, is slow of speech and mild in manner. A man as unwanted as the broken bric-a-brac he collects, he says little — until the speech in which he reveals how he became so damaged.

This monologue is the core of Warchus’s production: delivered with pain and buried rage by Mays in the gathering gloom, it describes how he was robbed of his voice. Two misfits building castles in the air with words; one fiddling fruitlessly with an old toaster. Even when it stops raining, none of them is going anywhere.

To May 14,

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