The Caretaker | Ensemble Theatre

Image by Prudence Upton

This review comes from Night Writes guest reviewer Jack Mitchell

“What’s the game, then?”

The thuggish Mick asks the homeless layabout Davies this question at the end of Act 1 of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. Davies doesn’t know how to respond and it is almost as though Pinter is probing the audience with the same question. What’s the point of it all? Sitting within the absurdist theatre style, the play questions our assumptions about the fundamental aspects of live theatre. The plot is sparse, the characters speak over and around each other, and the language is cyclical and repetitive. Under Iain Sinclair’s direction, this is a claustrophobic and intriguing production.

The steady and vacant Aston (Anthony Gooley) brings Davies (Darren Gilshenan) into his cramped West London flat, which is crammed full of bric-a-brac. Aston has rescued Davies from a fight, and offers him the bed next to his own. Davies makes increasingly inappropriate and contradictory demands of Aston and is suddenly offered the role of caretaker of the apartment. This is before Aston’s brother Mick (Henry Nixon) enters, shaking up the power dynamic and intimidating Davies with violence and probing questions about his identity.

Gilshenan shone as the unkempt Davies, embodying his character with a kinetic, agitated physicality and making him repulsive, pitiful, and humorous all at once. His knowing looks at the audience throughout, as if to say “did you just hear that?!” were a way of bringing us (perhaps against our wills) more fully into his thought processes and to complicate our desire to view him simplistically as “the other”. Gooley brought a timid and measured approach to his portrayal of Aston, a man damaged by electro-shock therapy. A lengthy monologue in which he details his past was accompanied by the rhythmic sanding of a length of timber which sat propped on his knees. This sound became a mesmerising indicator of the monologue’s pace, with the potential to both increase and decrease engagement with the text. It was a difficult scene to watch, but the mixing of sounds exemplified Pinter’s portrayal of characters who are unable to connect with each other. Nixon’s pace was a million miles a minute as Mick and he brought a confronting combination of frenetic energy and controlled menace to the role. His exuberance and outbursts kept both Davies and the audience on their toes and, though the strangeness of his portrayal was almost cartoonish at times, his complicated and repetitive lines became a vehicle for Pinter to estrange and disturb the viewer.

Iain Sinclair’s production drew attention to Pinter’s language by stripping back its design elements. Veronique Benett’s set effectively conveyed shabbiness and clutter. The small space mirrored the restrictive feeling of the play itself and jarred humorously with Mick’s lavish dreams of real estate makeovers. Matt Cox’s lighting was predominantly fixed in one state and the main feature of Daryl Wallis’s sound design was a chiming clock, sounding repetitively at the beginning of each scene. The chimes reinforced the cyclical nature of the action, drawing attention to the ways in which the drama felt stuck in time. The minimalism of these components allowed the dialogue to take a central position, with the limiting and contradictory dynamics of the text being accentuated as a result.

The incongruity of The Caretaker’s script made it difficult to make sense of. It leaps from dark monologues to slapstick comedy in a heartbeat and characters repeat things but never act on bringing them to fruition (like Davies constantly mentioning the need to get to Sidcup to retrieve his papers). It seems, though, that this lack of resolution or clarity is part of what Pinter wants, as he questions our understanding of what theatre should be and, indeed, what we care about as individuals more broadly.  The production leaned into this sense of enigma, raising more questions than answers, but providing for some compelling moments and thought-provoking drama throughout.

The Caretaker is running at the Ensemble Theatre from October 14th – November 19th

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