Peter Shum reviews The Caretaker,Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa, 29th February
After bringing the homeless Davies back to his flat, Aston asks him where he was born. “What do you mean?” replies Davies. It is one of countless humorous moments littering Pinter’s The Caretaker. Likewise, the funny bone is tickled when, for instance, Davies confesses matter-of-factly that he left his wife after a week of marriage, or when Mick starts rambling about the buses caught by someone’s mother. It adds up to a string of gags that serves to reassure the audience that, whatever else might be in store for them, at least a bit of comedy will be in the mix.
All the same, even an abundance of mirth should not blind us to the fact that comedies still need to stack up aesthetically. Perhaps most obviously, one feels entitled to enquire as to the significance of the bucket and the leaking ceiling. Fortunately for us, this is a play that rewards investigation into such questions.
Of the three characters, perhaps Mick is the most difficult to understand. At first one wonders if Mick plans to conspire with Davies to displace Aston from the flat. But when it emerges that Davies is prepared to betray Aston, Mick turns on Davies. Thus Mick turns out to be trying to protect his brother through a covert experiment on Davies. Tom O’Connor (Mick) does well to show that Mick is a “caretaker” in a very peculiar way, taking care of his brother by exposing Davies’ untrustworthiness.
Davies takes exception to his being treated like a “wild animal” during his many years of vagrancy, but he is closer to a beast than he would be prepared to admit. In his tenacity to fight for his own survival, he is prepared to play one brother against the other. His “becoming animal” metamorphosis may be conducive to his survival on the streets, but it also degrades his propensity to form prudent friendships and alliances. Tim Willis (Davies) conveys how paranoia has made Davies his own worst enemy, closing off his own chances of re-entering civilised society.
If the play offers a faint light at the end of the tunnel, it is a flicker of brotherly love between Mick and Aston. They smile at each other in the closing scene, as if tacitly acknowledging that something important has been discovered. Rod Wilkinson (Aston) succeeds in drawing out a certain transition in the development of the kindly Aston, who extended the hand of friendship to Davies in the first place, but has learned an important lesson for himself – that he lives in a brutal world where it is not always prudent to show unconditional hospitality.
As for the leaking ceiling, it functions inter alia as a metaphor for dysfunction in the interior lives of the characters. “What do you do when the bucket is full?” asks Davies. After a brief pause, a dead-pan Aston replies “Empty it.” The burst of hilarity this elicited from the audience was second only to a beautifully understated put-down directed at Davies: “I don’t think we’re hitting it off.” Well said, Aston, well said.