A measure of Timothy Spall’s success as a character actor on big and small screens is the fact that the theatre has been robbed of his talents for decades. However, any fears that his stage technique could have become rusty are dispelled within seconds, as he settles as comfortably as Davies, his character, in the top floor flat in which he has been offered shelter. Davies is one of life’s losers, a down-and-out, an habitual liar and he is best played by the sort of larger-than-life actor whose charisma fills a theatre. Donald Pleasance and Michael Gambon have been notable in the role in the past and Spall is simply perfect. Harold Pinter’s 1960 play is revived frequently and fascination with it grows with every viewing. Pinter does not ask us to like the squirming and needy Davies, rather he asks us to recognise that something of him exists in all of us. We watch him deploy all his cunning to gain a foothold in his new abode, evenwtually receiving the doubtful distinction of being appointed caretaker. What Pinter tells us about all three characters in this play is selective, the omission of key details and the inclusion of seeming trivia being used to fuel a feel of absurdist comedy and hidden menace. Davies is invited into the flat by Aston, there to carry out renovations; its owner is his brother Mick; what follows is a series of low level power games between the three, Davies pushing the others and testing their limits. George MacKay’s Mick, young, cocky and not yet tarnished by failure is always likely to end up top dog, but Daniel Mays’ brooding, limping Aston seems damaged, an obvious prey for Davies’ vulture-like instincts. Pinter designs most of the set himself in the script, but Rob Howell’s realisation of the flat reeks of cold and damp, defying even the Old Vic’s malfunctioning air-conditioning. One of the most notable features of Matthew Warchus’ production is how, notwithstanding Spall’s dominating performance, Mays’ quietly subdued Aston so often comes to the fore. Two-thirds of the way through, Mays sits at the side of his bed, picked out by a spotlight while Spall sits behind him in semi-darkness; he recounts Aston’s experiences in a mental institution, detailing all the cruelty with which society and the medical profession treated mental illness half a century ago. Pinter uses no flowery language, Mays uses no over-emphasis and the effect is utterly devastating, stunning even the usual coughers in the audience to total silence. Normally a second interval that stretches a production to over 200 minutes would be regrettable, but, in this case, Mays’ monologue can be followed by nothing else. At this and several other key points in his production, Warchus accentuates something in Pinter’s writing that many argue is often lacking – the quality of compassion. For that reason above all others, this is a remarkable revival.
Performance date: 30 March 2016