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Comedy and terror: George MacKay (left)and Timothy Spall in “The Caretaker” (©Manuel Harlan)

Harold Pinter’s 1960 The Caretaker is a play perfectly poised between comedy and terror — a microcosm of the grimmer absurdities, fears and opportunism of life, crammed into a junk-strewn loft where Davies, a guileful tramp, has installed himself at the financial and spiritual expense of introverted, brain-damaged Aston. That dynamic unleashes fraternal rivalries and a meditation on life in the damp garrets of postwar Britain.

In the Old Vic’s production, which runs until May 14, Spall returns to the stage after some 20 years dedicated to the small and large screen, gurning his way from Churchill in The King’s Speech to Mr Turner. No one grunts and grimaces with the felicity of Mr Spall, nor with such pugnacious menace attached.

As Davies, a penniless chancer living under an assumed name, he is at first agreeably exploitative in a “don’t mind if I do” sort of way that gradually becomes darker and threatens the fragile ecosystem of the dysfunctional duo of brothers who end up harbouring him. Spall’s biggest strength is his delivery, with the peevish whining of a street beggar who has perfected his pitch to guilty humanity. He frets about the desire to “sort out my papers” and pull himself up by his non-existent bootstraps, a feat only achievable if he can get down to Sidcup, the suburb which Pinter turns into the unachievable Shangri-La of south London’s Oz.

We soon realise that Davies reaching Sidcup is as likely as Godot arriving to cheer up Vladimir and Estragon. Much is said of Pinter’s pauses (though they don’t get much of a role here in director Matthew Warchus’s fast-talking approach). But the ability to make a phrase signify something completely different from its dictionary meaning reminds us of how peerless Pinter is in turning mere words into weapons and signifiers. The job of “caretaker”, offered to Davies alternately by Aston (Daniel Mays) and his scary brother Mick (George MacKay), comes with the regulation brown janitor’s coat. But seeing as the job doesn’t exist and the fantastical notion is a tug-of-war between the two brothers for control of a tenant they never really wanted, the connotation becomes the donning of a royal garment.

Spall’s is a commanding though unnuanced performance that occasionally teeters from genuine pathos towards the arch parody of the TV comedienne Catherine Tate’s grotesque, manipulative Nan. The finer-grained performance is by Daniel Mays. He shuffles into his single bed, fiddles inconclusively with a screwdriver and plug, announcing optimistically amid a rubbish-strewn hovel that he is “just doing some spring cleaning”. Mays has shone as disturbed young men, from the TV drama Red Riding to Line of Duty, but he warms to the role of an unthreatening loser. The monologue in which he describes being submitted to electro-convulsive therapy in a mental institution works by dint of his musing tone and casual attention to terrifying details: “They did it while I was standing up. They know they shouldn’t do it to you standing up.” But they did — and even Davies is stunned into shutting up for a good minute.
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