SPALL, SQUALOR, AND 1960
I do not routinely worship at the shrine of Harold Pinter. I can study, appreciate and accept the menace, the unspoken, the rhythmic near-poetry of dialogue : I have served my time with Existentialism, Absurdism, Beckettiana, every generation of push-theatre-forward shockjockery. Pinter has his place and his heirs (Florian Zeller lately a fine one). Get a great director like Matthew Warchus and a top cast and you have an event, for many an unmissable one. But he doesn’t stir deeper currents in me. For all the skill and faithfulness what is expressed is too mired in misanthropy, bitterness, bullying rage and shreds of misogyny.
But having admitted that personal blindness, it is all the more firmly that I admit tht this is a barnstorming production of his best play, and a career-besst performance by Timothy Spall as Davies the tramp: the cuckoo in the nest who is taken in by the mentally limited, benign Aston (Daniel Mays ) and then both tempted and tormented by his sharp thuggish brother Mick (George MacKay). In three acts with short intervals, power and menace ebbs and swirls between them, provoking laughs both unforced and uneasy, spurting sudden riffs of eloquence , keeping the unspoken shiver in the air. Spall, a shambling grizzled wreck with a querulous drawling delivery, is mesmerizingly good; Mays gives Aston a wounded dignity which comes as near to pathos as Pinter ever allows; MacKay is a slim, lethal blade of darkness, hollow at heart. Warchus, who sees more humanity in Pinter than I generally do, extracts from these three actors every ounce of it.
The set by Rob Howell is a marvel: a leprous attic room, peeling wallpaper, boxes, junk, bin-lids, a broken gas stove, squalid beds, drifts of old carpet, tottering piles of newspaper. Indeed the whole play falls into period, the 1960 I dimly remember as a child: Rachman’s slum London , postwar squalor, broken men, unfeasible sullen ambition, teddyboys in ciré bomber jackets like Mick, Pete and Dud eerily prefigured in non sequitur conversations. There are brilliant sequences: Mick’s estate-agenty riffs on interior design, Spall’s hilarilous preenings in the velvet smoking-jacket , and his fleeting attempts to pose with pipesmoking authority or soldierly bravura. The long concentrated silences of Mays as he fiddles with mending the same toaster over and over are perfect, as is his profoundly felt account of the brutal electric shock treatment which disabled him mentally and physically. Yet this is delivered to Davies who is almost asleep, uncaring; though not asleep enough to miss it since when the tramp turns on his host with fearful viciousness later, Spall’s venom makes you wince in your seat.
As power and abusiveness whirl and shift between them in the filth, all three hold their qualities superbly: Davies querulous, needy, ungrateful, whiningly vicious and always ineffective;; Aston damaged, benign, unhappy, and ineffective; Mick petulant, menacing, manipulative and, naturally, just as ineffective. None of them will fulfil their goals – going to Sidcup, building a shed, remodelling a penthouse. The only completed task is Aston’s provision of wearable shoes for Davies, and even then the laces are the wrong colour.
So yes, brilliant. Yet there is something uneasy too: a sense of zoo or freak-show in us a cultured theatre-savvy affluent 21st century audience, gathered round to laugh at bygone deadbeats, thugs and failures who in no way reflect us challengingly back at ourselves. It is a cosy sort of discomfort we feel: .like looking at sooty back-to-back terraces from a first class train window.
box office 0844 871 7628
principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada
rating four (though given that set and theme, they’re probably rats..)