THEATRE / Atmospheric interference: Paul Taylor on Steve Shill's disappointing production of The Caretaker at Nottingham Playhouse

STEVE Shill, the art-school trained performance artist and director, is one of those 'total theatre' men, like Robert Lepage, who have a reputation for granting as much importance to the atmospherics of a show (the look, the sound, the lighting) as to the text and the performances. With self-devised pieces, the seamless Gesamtkunstwerk effect is often magical; it's only when directors of this type turn to classic drama by other hands that things can start to come unstuck. Then it may be a case of asking whether the result represents total theatre or total solipsism. The question certainly crossed one's mind during Lepage's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the National, where Shakespeare's comedy was buried under several tons of mud and megalomania.

Shill's production of Pinter's The Caretaker at Nottingham is a much more genuine meeting of imaginations, though it becomes disappointingly clear early on that the performances and the insights into the text aren't going to reach the same level of quality as the set and the ambience. 'An extraordinary event,' gushes the Playhouse brochure, 'incorporating an atmospheric soundtrack and all the breathtaking visual and cinematic effects for which Steve Shill has become famous.' This somewhat oversells a production which - with moody sax riffs for incidental music, in-period black and white credits and scene descriptions flashed up over the mantelpiece, and the sleepy sound of rain sheeting down outside - tries, intermittently and with restraint, to capture the mood of early Sixties British films or the plays in Armchair Theatre.

The set manages, very artfully, to create the impression of constriction and claustrophobia on a largish proscenium stage. The high-windowed, junk-cluttered room where the tramp and the two brothers play their territorial power games is a V shape, squashed wide and shallow, with a large out-of-bounds margin between it and the edge of the stage. Looking as though it aspires to become two-dimensional, it's a spot where even a saint might get embroiled in edgy demarcation disputes over space.

Uninspired performances fail, however, to release all the tensions in the situation. Kenneth Haigh as Davies gets some gruff comedy out of the old derelict's pose as a man of experience, stroking his stubbly chin with a would-be judicious clubman's air that simply betrays his prevaricating unease. But there's no deep underlying insecurity in this tramp's reflexes. Donald Pleasance's Davies always started back to life, when awoken, with a jerk of utter panic. Haigh wakes up with a spurt of surprise. Nor is there any grim pathos in the performance. This tramp seems, throughout, a supremely suitable candidate for prompt eviction. The texture of the ending is thereby drastically thinned.

Jonathan Lermit has some good moments of bleak dignity as Aston, the damaged, sweet-natured brother, but Michael Praed, despite flashes of poisoned perkiness, brings only an ersatz menace to the role of Mick, the sadistically toying tough. Despite all his sudden leanings-forward, you'd feel in as much danger of being head- butted by him as by, say, Cliff Richard. Shill's is, none the less, an intriguing production, but one where it may seem to you cock- eyed that the ambience created by the design, sound and lighting should be so much more powerful than the atmosphere generated by the play's human relationships.

Until 13 February at Nottingham Playhouse (0602 419419).

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