The Caretaker, Old Vic, Bristol

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The Independent Culture

The Old Vic feels unusually empty. This is, perhaps, the first sign that Harold Pinter is becoming "Shakespeared": turned into the subject of a lifelong antipathy on the part of many as a result of being force-fed his work at school. And if there is one Pinter play most likely to have to been thrust down the throats of unwilling adolescents, it's The Caretaker. Small wonder, then, that 10 or 20 years later, having reached the age of self-determining adulthood, those former adolescents refuse to submit to an evening with their bête noire.

Audiences may also be put off by the apparent unadventurousness of the choice of play - one of the solid workhorses of modern amateur and professional British theatre. But Bristolians are gradually learning that things are rarely what they seem at the Old Vic under its new artistic directors, Simon Read and David Farr. By approaching the characters with freshness and originality, Lindsay Posner's production blows away any dust that may have accumulated on this theatrical heirloom over the past 40 years.

Davies, the tramp who takes up residence in Aston's seedy flat, is commonly played as rat-like: sly and whining, moaning about his "rights" and slithering through life with constant excuses. In the hands of the Pinter veteran Terence Rigby, he is transformed into an Old Testament prophet whose pronouncements are ultimately empty and shallow: not a rat, but a lion with a mangy mane.

Apart from the sheer bulk of the man, this characterisation is supported by an accent which has, like the rest of Davies, "been around": a mongrel blend of South Wales and traditional Army officer class, the rolling Welsh cadences and saloon bar bluster lending a hollow bombast to his declamations as he bestrides the stage in what may be a definitive reinterpretation of the role.

Equally, Paul Ritter's Mick is not the tough and dangerous alpha male as which he is usually portrayed. Instead, he resembles a suburban accountant in a mock-leather jacket, a wiry little bantam who fizzles with fear as much as with anger. One suspects that in life he has always been the bullied, not the bully - when he discovers Davies in his brother's room, he seizes his chance to be the dominator.

By making Davies stronger and Mick weaker than usual, Posner has thus rebalanced the power relationship between the three men into a more interesting and more realistic dynamic than is usually seen. Mick is brought into the same shifting interplay of superiority and inferiority as Aston and Davies, rather than being placed above them, and this goes some way to justify and explain the emotive power that poor brain-damaged Aston - a low-key and gentle performance by Simon Kunz - has over his younger brother. There are no top dogs here.

If there is any cause for complaint, it is Christopher Oram's set. It's too spacious. The script suggests, and the drama requires, that it is a small room packed claustrophobically with junk - Oram's setting has too much decayed grandeur and, in the end, simply too much space.

There are some plays that you should have watched at least once in your life. The Caretaker is one of them, and this is a beautifully conceived staging of a true classic.

To 27 September (0117-987 7877)

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