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.
Meanwhile, Mick, an itinerant builder given to flights of fantasy about interior decoration and bus routes, struts the stage, a bully as dangerously sharp as his knife-creased trousers, given to spontaneous interrogations and manic outbursts. But who is the more dangerous of the two nasties? Spall’s Davies lacks the psychotic undertones emphasised by Jonathan Pryce in the 2009 Liverpool Everyman production, and wastes the Pinteresque hint that he is no stranger to mental hospitals either.
Noel Coward pointed out that The Caretaker was “everything I hate most in the theatre: squalor, lack of action, etc. But it seizes hold of you. Nothing happens but somehow it does.” That quality has survived throughout half a century of social change. The main difference is that the setting — “a house in West London” — and its fetid garret of human despair would now command a small fortune. It might even allow Mick full deranged rein of his interior decoration dreams: “An off-white pile linen rug, table with afromosia teak veneer . . . and white-topped heat-resistant coffee table.”
Is it really 11 years since Billy Elliot dances his way from Easington to the Royal Ballet School, combining a meritocratic parable of individual talent with a Job-ish treatment of the miners’ strike and associated evils of Thatcherism? It surely is. Whatever you make of writer Lee Hall’s proto-Corbyn politics, the musical adaptation of the 2000 movie, in the hands of Stephen Daldry and Elton John, hit a nerve. Watching the curtain come down on the ten boys who have inhabited the role of Billy and were all included in the final farewell, along with St Elton of John and a host of other supportive worthies, the circularity of the arguments is striking — as well as the miners.
We have another row about whether the government should intervene to prop up a dying industry (this time steel), a Labour Party close to the 1980s NUM view of capitalism, and an ongoing, even more embittered, argument about how children with potential can make it.
It is not quite the same old song. Outside the far Left, Britain in 2015 is more comfortable with the idea that changes in jobs are inevitable and that battles like Easington and Orgreave are not the way to help those at the sharp end of globalisation. So a lot of the arguments put in Hall’s more pathos-ridden passages have gone by default. But we have become more troubled by the fate of those left behind — the less talented brothers and cousins of the aspiring Billys. And that is why audiences left, right and unaligned flocked to a musical about social mobility and its paradoxical consequences.
I cannot, by the way, remember a single song from it. This must be the only hit musical with a plot centred on music with a score by one of the world’s most prolific pop-song writers, without one hit song in it.