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A CurtainUp London Review
We start Pinter's play feeling sorry for Davies, the tramp (despite his terrible racism) as he recounts the series of misfortunes that have befallen him. Davies' lack of personal hygiene is rivalled only by the terrible dirty bed linen and dusty blankets Aston gives to him which makes the audience visibly recoil. The running joke is of course Davies' finicky one-upmanship, the homeless man who has nothing except the ability to talk himself up in every situation, to top every story with one of his own, inventing and deluding himself as a man of pride, achievement and superiority. There's the good joke about brown laces not looking right on black shoes when the man is meant to thank Aston for his kindness and generosity. I was set to wondering if he would be a Big Issue seller nowadays and how successful he might be. That week someone had been telling me of a moving memorial on a pavement near to the National Theatre on the South Bank saying that, "Here a homeless man died, he was a teacher".
The productions opens with wonderful modern music, like rain drops of percussion but with a suspenseful element; later the director uses haunted house type music from Ben and Max Ringham who have music writing credits for lots of staged thrillers. The set too is detailed, a designer's dream of this big room with a pile of newspapers four feet high, and assorted junk. Soutra Gilmour has assembled the cluttered possessions for Aston to mend and sort. Where a light might hang there is strung up a galvanised steel bucket which every so often collects a noisy drop of rainwater, a loud plip plop noise which makes everyone sit up and pay attention. The sash window glass is dirty with years of neglect.
The programme is very interesting in that it has an extract from Michael Billington's life of Pinter discussing how he argued with his wife Vivien Merchant about putting Aston in the play. All three characters had their basis in reality when Pinter and Vivien lived in a flat in Chiswick High Road in the 1950s. Their landlord, like Mick (Nigel Harman), a builder, had a van and make swift visits to the house. His brother was a handyman who had been a psychiatric patient, Austin was his real name and one day, Austin brought home an old man who stayed three or four weeks. Vivien never forgave her husband for exploiting Austin/Aston and exposing him to theatre audiences. I find it impossible to think about Pinter without remembering poor Vivien drinking herself to a lonely early death in Blackheath when he left her after the torture of years of marital infidelity, which she had endured in order for them to stay living as man and wife. She was a beautiful actress and the success of many of his plays was at least partially due to her luminescent talent.
David Bradley of course has the kind of face that has seen years, and credibly could have seen them on the road. He is tall, slim and with high cheekbones, gaunt and with great presence. As Davies he slides his sandalled feet outwards diagonally keeping his weight central, a shuffling gait of a man who has spent too much time on his feet and with shoes that don't fit and which provide no support. His limbs look stiff with rheumatism. But this man Davies is no noble character. He sides with Mick and disses Aston. It is only at the end of the play that he realises that he has backed the wrong brother. Who can forget the pride with which Davies puts on the velvet smoking jacket that Aston has bought for him? David Bradley's voice has such a range of emotion but he uses this to make sure we dislike the mean spirited Davies.
Con O'Neill is very gentle as Aston as he fiddles with a screwdriver trying to get the electrical plugs fixed. He has a high voice, unmanly and boyish and seems slow and to have special needs. The speech when he describes treatment in the asylum is the most moving and affecting of the play. This production emphasises Aston's simple humanity. Well known to television viewers, actor Nigel Harman is a popular choice for Mick, the sinister brother who switches into those Pinteresque flights of high parodic prose with "Frightfully nice to meet you", or using posh words like penchant and papoose. I loved what I think is a new take on the bag routine when Mick takes the bag from Davies, and Aston takes it from Mick, to give it back to Davies. After several rounds like this, they suddenly reverse the flow with Aston giving it back to Mick, who surprises himself by giving it to Davies, who can now keep it. Masterly!
Jamie Lloyd's production is well worth the visit to The Tricycle where this old play feels as fresh as a new suit.
For more about Harold Pinter and his plays, see our Pinter Backgrounder.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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