REVIEW: The Caretaker in Chichester: ghastly world beautifully realised

Ian McDiarmid as Davies in The Caretaker at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo Ellie KurttzIan McDiarmid as Davies in The Caretaker at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo Ellie Kurttz
Ian McDiarmid as Davies in The Caretaker at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo Ellie Kurttz
The Caretaker by Harold Pinter, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until Saturday, July 13.

The only Pinters I’ve seen before now have been dismal, dull affairs – a fact which has felt like the principal reason that no one for years has seemed remotely interested in reviving his works.

And it’s in that context that Justin Audibert’s new production of The Caretaker – in his first summer production since becoming Chichester Festival Theatre’s artistic director last year – comes as a remarkably pleasant surprise.

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It doesn’t quite suggest that we are in for a massive resurgence of interest in all things Pinter, but it certainly convinces that Pinter’s first major success, which premiered in 1960, is worth a fresh look – 16 years after Pinter’s death and in a theatre which Pinter so famously loved, the Minerva.

Audibert’s production is carried by the first-rate acting all round, brilliant casting and performances getting the most out of the perplexing, challenging characters we are confronted with, but goodness, Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set is great too. We are amid endless, disordered, random clutter in the grottiest, grimmest, decaying flat at the tail end of the 1950s. The look and feel are superbly realised; the detail is astonishing. You feel that the only thing missing is that it should honk to high heaven, but thank goodness it doesn’t.

And it is into this mess that he calls home that Aston (Adam Gillen) brings back the ghastly, manipulative drifter Davies, an outstanding performance from Ian McDiarmid, nailing with total fluency the garrulousness of the man, a spew of words amid which you doubt there is a single moment of truth, either about himself or his circumstances. In the first half McDiarmid’s skill is to make you wonder whether there isn’t something ever so slightly and oddly endearing about the character before he shatters any illusions with the cruelty of the second half.

Aston is the perfect victim for him, naïve, lost, lonely, damaged, reaching out and trying to connect but disastrous in his choices. Gillen mesmerises as he gives us Aston recalling the ECT he was treated with years before in his childhood, all part of an upbringing which has clearly left him shattered. There is something hugely touching about the kindness he wants to extend. Gillen hints at the decency – and nails the vulnerability.

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It's an uneasy rapport between Aston and Davies made all the more unstable by the arrival of Aston’s brother Mick (similarly excellent from Jack Riddiford), the most sinister of the three, blowing hot and cold and always menacing. You really wouldn’t want to spend any time with any of these people – and yet the quality of the acting and the quality of the direction draw us into this depressing world of shifting allegiances: the naïve brother, the violent brother and the inveigling, self-seeking racist tramp as they bounce off each other, never connecting, probably never properly communicating. They leave you intrigued and unsettled – and unsettled too by the strange humour which is beautifully played and never far away.

Phil Hewitt