A theatre such as the Centaur seems both an apt and equally odd locale for the staging of a Harold Pinter play. Pinter, working his way out from underneath the colossal shadow of the likes of Brecht and Beckett, has become one of the most important destroyers of convention and a leader of post-war minimalism.
The Centaur can be regarded as a peculiar milieu for The Caretaker because this brooding work was originally laid out as a bit of anti-theatre, and although The Centaur has staged some rather assertive works in recent years, one can’t help but note the bourgeois pomp on an opening night, not to mention the poster for Mambo Italiano hanging in the foyer.
Juxtaposed with the bleak scenario and awkward dialogue of Pinter’s aimless characters, the location of this staging of The Caretaker actually sort of augments the absurdity of what Pinter set out to accomplish when the play was first staged in 1959.
Nearly 50 years on, the script still seems relevant. In the hands of the fine trio that have been assembled to capture the pathos and claustrophobia of modern life, Pinter’s cruel wit and deafening silence is cleanly rendered.
Neil Napier plays Aston, a quiet and fractured soul who saves the tramp Davies from a beating in a local cafe just before the action of the play. Napier’s understated handling of Aston seems initially overwrought, however it turns out that Napier has his character so completely down pat that it is the audience that requires the adjustment.
Kent Allen plays Davies, the lynchpin of what little conflict there is in the play. On opening night Allen replaced John Dunn-Hill in the role with barely two days notice, therefore Allen was forced to read from the script on-stage, which proved at times quite awkward. As with Napier, Allen’s accent was spot-on, however perhaps a bit too close to an exact replica of Michael Caine. This could be seen as mere imitation, but Allen deserves a pass due to his lack of preparation time for the role.
Assuming the role of Aston’s flamboyant brother Mick is Alain Goulem, who gets to have all the fun in Mick’s erratic, arrogant skin. Goulem is careful to balance Mick’s viciousness with a strange sense of delicacy. Mick is a character that could easily have been overdone. The Caretaker lives and dies with how it’s three characters are presented and how their slow burn of frustration and doom is developed via dark humorous chords.
These chords are extracted especially well in the middle act, as the material and the performers settle into the cyclical nature of Mick, Aston and Davies’ purgatorial relationship. Director Douglas Campbell is a legend of Canadian theatre, and many of his choices, including the simple decision of sticking to the time/place setting of 1950’s London, exemplify why he is a recipient of the Order of Canada.
Unfortunately, much of the final act, which is the weakest portion of the material itself, was deeply hampered by Allen’s reading from the script. Certainly, in the coming week or so Allen will be able to fully inhabit the part.
When this is the case, the cast of this rendition of Pinter’s excellent commentary on the stripped down absurdity of life will be able to meander to the deafening conclusion of this masterwork of the post-war era in a fittingly maddening fashion.
The Caretaker plays at the Centaur Theatre until April 22.