Marber's comic instinct adds vigour to a splendid revival

<i>The Caretaker</i> | The Comedy Theatre, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Never fraternise with the enemy, particularly when the enemy are fraternising with one another in the deepest sense of the word - that's to say, when they are brothers, and you, yourself, are an outsider to their inscrutable, shifting brotherly unit. That perception is at the heart of Harold Pinter's classic play The Caretaker, revived now some 40 years after its historic first night in a truly inspired production by the young playwright Patrick Marber.

Never fraternise with the enemy, particularly when the enemy are fraternising with one another in the deepest sense of the word - that's to say, when they are brothers, and you, yourself, are an outsider to their inscrutable, shifting brotherly unit. That perception is at the heart of Harold Pinter's classic play The Caretaker, revived now some 40 years after its historic first night in a truly inspired production by the young playwright Patrick Marber.

What Marber has realised is at once simple and profound. The way he has directed the piece reminds one, in fact, of the proverb: take care of the pence and let the pounds look after themselves. The premiÿre of The Caretaker was in 1960 and since then, it has come to be celebrated for its big themes: Territoriality (a tramp plays two brothers off each other in the quest for dry quarters and a kingdom of his own); Identity (lots of speeches about "papers"); and existentialist Dirty Realism. But Marber, who began his career in television comedy working with Steve Coogan, has had the wit to notice that, while The Caretaker can sustain a high-mindedness, it is also the godfather of the great Sixties TV comedy boom. In the various episodes of the play, you find already encoded everything from Peter Cook and Dudley Moore to Steptoe and Son.

Marber's own comic instinct makes this aspect of the play sing freshly. He relies gratefully on a terrific cast. As the flat-footed vagrant Davies, Michael Gambon is a miracle of cheesy bad faith. Measured against the kind of terminally dilapidated figure he cuts, the phrase "Dragged through a hedge backwards" indicates rigorous Vogue-like grooming. He makes Alan Bennett's great tramp, Miss Shepherd from The Lady in the Van, look like Jackie Onassis. With a blaring Geordie accent, Gambon's Davies is given to surges of flailing folie de grandeur and his glissades from sentence to sentence bring out the many funny non sequiturs in Pinter's dialogue.

The brothers themselves are, eerily, almost never on stage together. Playing those oddly remote, yet deeply close siblings, Rupert Graves is a splendid button-nosed rent-boy-style greaser and Douglas Hodge, who is one of the best exponents of Pinter's art, brings more than a hint of Buchner's Woyzeck to the difficult role of Aston.

Overall, The Caretaker is not only a classic revival with uncommon vigour and attitude, but a great night out.

Comments