First performed in 1960, The Caretaker was Harold Pinter’s breakthrough play and it’s still probably his best known. The compelling story of the psychological power struggle that ensues when a man offers a vagrant a bed at the house he shares with his brother, it was memorably revived at the Everyman a few years ago, with a cast headed by Jonathan Pryce as Davies, the tramp who ends up overstaying his welcome and potentially unbalancing the relationship between the two brothers.
Purple Coat Productions have had several successes at the Lantern Theatre, including an acclaimed version of Pinter’s The Homecoming last year, and their production of The Caretaker is hugely impressive. The fine set (designed by Kaylie Joy Black) presents us with a ramshackle, junk-filled room that is a reflection of the disordered mind of one brother (Aston, a former mental patient) while also being comically at odds with the Grand Designs-scale plans that the other (Mick) has for the residence.
Jack Murray’s Davies, who’s on stage for virtually the entire play, captures superbly the shifting moods of the character, as his clumsy attempt to manipulate the situation to his best advantage leads to an ill-advised bid to set one brother against the other. By turns ingratiating, threatening, terrified and self-important, Murray is always wholly convincing, and riveting to watch.
There’s another excellent performance from Karl Falconer (who also co-directs, with Siobhan Crinson) as the compassionate Aston, whose endless tinkering with electrical appliances suggests his struggle to make sense of the world. A character of few words, the long, revelatory speech in which he describes his hospital treatment is as moving as it is unexpected.
Stewart McDonald exudes menace as a leather-jacketed Mick, the outwardly more confident younger brother, while also managing to hint at the character’s own insecurities. His machine-gun style interrogation of a confused, bewildered Davies is both painful and hilarious, a perfect demonstration of Pinter’s tragicomic approach.
Occasional references to ‘the war’ reflect the play’s period, as do Mick’s laughably low estimation of the London house’s value and Davies’s racist paranoia about ‘the blacks’ next door (though his rant about Poles and Greeks taking British jobs sounds very familiar). But generally it’s a timeless piece that works on many levels: as a play about lives based on illusory hopes, or the savagery of relationships, or the precariousness of identity (Davies uses assumed names, Aston is battling to rebuild a shattered life and Mick’s presentation of himself as a hotshot businessman never rings true). And, as Pinter’s wonderfully natural but famously enigmatic dialogue shows, it’s also a play that’s about how language can be a barrier rather than an aid to communication. Mick uses it as a weapon, and like the evasive Davies – ‘Well, I’ve been around’ is his reply when asked if he’s Welsh – little of what he says can be taken at face value. Aston has obvious difficulty relating to others but ironically seems the most open and transparent.
There’s another chance to see this first-rate production on Saturday 3 May. It’s alternating with another Purple Coat production, Charlotte Keatley’s My Mother Said I Never Should, which is at the Lantern on 2 and 4 May. With Purple Coat at the helm, it’s likely to be another must-see performance.
The Caretaker (3 May) and My Mother Said I Never Should (2 and 4 May) are at the Lantern Theatre, 57 Blundell Street, Liverpool. A special ticket price is available if you book for both shows. For more information, visit www.lanterntheatreliverpool.co.uk or telephone 0151 703 0000.