The Caretaker review – Pinter’s grim drama played more for laughs

<span>No des res … Jack Riddiford as Mick and Ian McDiarmid and Davies in The Caretaker.</span><span>Photograph: Ellie Kurttz</span>
No des res … Jack Riddiford as Mick and Ian McDiarmid and Davies in The Caretaker.Photograph: Ellie Kurttz

How would an estate agent flog the poky west London premises in The Caretaker? In Justin Audibert’s revival, the walls are mouldy, peeling palimpsests; a streaked window admits only a milky, theoretical light; and a rusty shopping trolley vies for space with towers of yellowed periodicals and broken appliances. This is no des res, unless the “des” means “despairing”.

When the timid Aston shuffles in with Davies, the shabby, unhoused rogue he has just rescued from a potential fracas, it is as if they are entering a rotting mouth: as designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, the room’s scabby overhanging ceiling extends almost out into the auditorium, creating with the floorboards below a pair of remorseless jaws. The jaws of defeat, you might say, from which the three delusional combatants – the third is Aston’s cocky brother, Mick – compete to snatch victory, however pyrrhic or bleak.

Given that setting, it may seem remarkable that the laughs come so frequently. Too frequently, perhaps: Audibert’s direction nails Harold Pinter’s gallows humour better than the existential chasm beneath. One exception is Aston’s show-stopping speech, which reveals how he became such a sorry specimen, constantly tinkering with plugs now that his own wiring is beyond repair.

Looking like a cross between Eraserhead, Rodney Trotter and Tintin, the pink-faced, vanilla-quiffed Adam Gillen is achingly vulnerable. As his protective sibling, Jack Riddiford makes some commendably wild choices that don’t always gel. There’s a thick crust of camp to his swagger, and perhaps one too many “Ooh, Matron!”-style moues. A shade more menace wouldn’t go amiss.

Ian McDiarmid brings a spry, balletic grace to Davies, the broken wreck who witters on about Sidcup (it’s his Godot) and proves that beggars can be choosers as he Goldilockses his way through the cast-offs that Aston brings him. McDiarmid’s physical mastery of the role is fully realised. He grabs his filthy raincoat to himself like a dowager clutching her pearls. In terror, he hoists his waistcoat over his head, making an impromptu wimple (fittingly for all his blather about mother superiors). Davies’s racism and xenophobia are manifestations of the same mortal fear, which produces his blood-curdling scream – the one moment when this efficient production dives headlong into the gurgling depths.