The Caretaker at The Wharf Theatre, Devizes; a review

 

On Friday night I had the pleasure of seeing Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, directed by Lewis Cowen and dedicated by him to the memory of the late and lovely Rosemary Shaw, at our wonderful Wharf Theatre.

Much has been written about the Nobel prize winning Pinter’s plays that he seems to have rejected as being irrelevant, including the term ‘comedy of menace’ and comments about ‘Pinteresque pauses’. The Caretaker is said to have been inspired by the playwright’s own experiences of living in relative poverty and his observations of the comings and goings of acquaintances in Chiswick in the 50s and was first performed in 1960.

It’s a play about three blokes in a room with a bucket waiting for something to happen.  The absurdist influence of Beckett, with whom Pinter had a mutually beneficial creative relationship, is strong in this one.

The production began and ended with, according to my fellow back row enthusiasts (it’s a leg room thing), the sound of Charmaine by Mantovani, with rain noises and the occasional timely knell of a drip in a bucket punctuating the uncomfortable silences.  The shabby and well designed set consisted of two old beds, a window with a tattered net and a light bulb without a shade, odd planks of wood leaned up against flaky-painted walls, a toaster with a broken plug, a pristine Buddha on an empty stove, and numerous other pieces of scrap that only a hoarder might consider to have any kind of potential.

Mick (played by Stuart Mayling), a man with a van, and his brother Aston (Pete Wallis), a quiet and slow moving person with plans for a shed, appear to live in a semi-derelict house in West London where nothing much happens, until one night in winter when Aston rescues a tramp from a fight and brings him home to stay for a while in order to help him get back on his feet.  Davies (Lewis Cowen) proves to be a demanding, ungrateful, racist, and manipulative house guest who comes with a multitude of unlikely stories and particular paranoias, and the play deals with how these three very different but all seemingly broken in some way characters relate to each other in the claustrophobic environment of the room.

There is only one moment when all three appear to be truly on the same page in this play, and that is the moment when a drip drops noisily into the bucket and they all look up at the same time.  Otherwise their conversations and interactions are clipped and disconnected, their sentences short, their speeches broken and circular, and their eye contact infrequent.

‘You see’ said Lesley Mills enthusiastically in the interval, ‘they all have a plan, but nothing ever comes together.’  And indeed they do; the edgy and volatile Mick has dreams of turning the flat into a penthouse (‘Listen out for the afromosia teak veneer!’ said Lesley); Aston intends to build a shed in the garden if only given the right tools and circumstances; and Davies – Davies has all manner of good intentions if only the weather goes his way and he can procure the right pair of shoes to take him to Sidcup where he can pick up his papers and prove his identity.

It was around the time that Pinter wrote this play that Eric Berne was engaged in writing papers on transactional analysis, but it wasn’t until 1964 that he published ‘The Games People Play’, in which he describes the game of ‘Why Don’t You – Yes But’, which is a mind game in which a helpful person is constantly defeated in their efforts to assist an individual by various excuses which prevent that individual from ever getting a resolution to a particular problem.

Thus it is to some degree with all three characters but is most observable with Davies and his mythical journey to Sidcup.  It’s not about the shoes that the kindly Aston tries to provide him with being never quite right, or the bed he is offered being in the wrong place.  It’s about his fear of responsibility.  Every time he is taken at his boastful word and threatened with anything remotely like a job or a solution to a problem, he becomes visibly vulnerable and backs away.  We never get to find out what if any trauma made him like he is, or what the nightmares are that threaten Aston’s fragile sleep and peace, and he never becomes the caretaker.  Eventually he goes too far in his efforts to drive a wedge between the brothers and in Aston’s words makes ‘too much noise’, and the play ends with the brothers united against a common enemy and Davies protesting in vain about having to leave.

Pinter did consider killing Davies off, but instead chose to have Aston control his demons, Mick smash the pristine Buddha, and the tramp merely consigned to utter darkness.

One of the reasons I went to see this play was to watch Lewis Cowen in the role of Davies, and whilst during his undoubtedly impressive and sensitive performance of tricky stream of consciousness lines and twitchy movements there were many moments where he seemed to disappear and there was only Davies however hard I looked, I do have to say that I was slightly surprised at the amount of prompting he required so far in to the run.

Stuart Mayling did a great job as the imposing and possibly psychopathic Mick, bringing an air of uncertain threat to the room every time he entered and convincingly playing Davies at his own mind games and winning.

But Pete Wallis’s performance as Aston, damaged in the past by a brutal experience of electric shock treatment and taking refuge in a safe life of silence and simple domestic ritual, was a stunning piece of understated genius.  I couldn’t take my eyes off him for the entire time he was on the stage, except for the moment when I had to wipe away a tear during his monologue as he described the clear and quiet sight he had before they put the pincers on him, and I and the audience caught a glimpse of the livelier, albeit less stable, man he may have been before.

There are places in Pinter’s play where people laugh that are supposed to be comedy but aside from the bit of slapstick where the three characters wrestled with the bag and the bit with the drip, I didn’t laugh at all.

Because this is a world that still exists and that some of us recognise.  A timeless, hidden world where people with mental health problems live in rooms full of junk and never quite get anything together.  Either you know about that world or you don’t, and Pinter clearly did.

The Caretaker was without doubt one of the most thought provoking and well executed productions I have seen at The Wharf.

Well done Lewis Cowen, and well done all.

© Gail Foster 4th February 2020

 

Begone Before We Weep, Young Vicar, Go

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On the occasion of the Reverend Ben Rundell-Evans’ last Holy Communion service at St. John the Baptist, Devizes, before his departure to Upper Stour

We’ll miss you in the vestry, little priest
And in the choir where we hear you sing
And at the altar where you share the feast
On Sunday mornings.  Nineteen bells to ring
In Stourton, Bourton, Kilmington, and Zeals
Three sets of six, and one for chiming hung
And practices on Mondays – silent peals
Unspoken hymns of glory softly sung
We’ll miss you, little priest.  You tidy up
The vestry, and are humorous and kind
The reverence with which you hold the cup
Is absolute.  And oh, your lively mind –
So wise for one so young, so good to know
Begone before we weep, young vicar, go

© Gail Foster 6th December 2019

The Elusive Danny Kruger

Why Danny, so cute, but elusive
Ornamental and yet unobtrusive
Preferring to stay
At the end of the day
In locations a tad more exclusive

Why Danny, you see, while there’s cheese
In the pond and the voters to please
You could pop into town
Take the M4 and down
To Devizes (one ‘z’ and two ‘e’s)

Why Danny, you’ve come from above
Like a glorious bright Tory dove
With the light on your wings
And your parachute strings
And a note signed from Boris with love

Why Danny, we’ve hoodies that you
Can hug if you’re so moved to do
And a little white horse
And a Poundland of course
(that’s a ‘P’ and two ‘d’s and a ‘u’)

Why Danny, we wish you were here
Come the day will you even appear
Perhaps in The Bear
Or the Pelican, yeah
Bet you won’t pop in there for a beer

Why Danny, Devizes is nice
But in Wiltshire there’s mud and there’s ice
And Hammersmith’s so
Very pleasant you know
(Spell Devizes? One ‘D’ and ‘e’ twice)

Why Danny, you’re cute enough, true
But you’re Boris’s man through and through
And you’ll only appear
About four times a year
(There’s no ‘u’ in Devizes. Who knew)

© Gail Foster 4th December 2019

UPDATE:  This morning, much to my surprise, I received a poetic retort from Danny Kruger (see below).   Whilst I won’t be voting for him, one has to say Well Played.

Leaving Brexit Behind Us Forever

 

Why Gail, so full of surprises!

Thanks for the tips on spelling Devizes

I’m sure that we’ve met

But I haven’t seen yet

Through one of your many disguises

 

Are you the farmer from Manton who said

Have Defra gone off their head?

They’ve banned neonics

(The fleabeetle fix)

And so half my rape crop is dead

 

Or were you the soldier who proudly explained

This is how Yeomen are trained:

We leave them out in the rain

For a month on the Plain

And those that survive are retained

 

Perhaps you’re the teacher from Oare

Who said schools badly need more

Money – they’ll get it!

Sajid has said it!

The Budget will cough up for sure

 

But seriously, Gail, I’ll endeavour

To bring our country together

We’re badly divided

(Did you vote Leave? I did)

And I want Brexit behind us for ever

 

© Danny Kruger 6th December 2019

 

Bus Stop Equinox

Bus Stop Equinox by Gail Foster

A sonnet on the subject of the Autumn Equinox,
and being at the bus stop at Avebury

Has Summer gone? Oh God, she was divine
Those crazy kisses, that incessant heat
Last seen by The Red Lion on the street
And off to Swindon on the 49 –
Another bus is coming, so it’s fine
That Autumn makes an old heart skip a beat
Her hazy colours, and her scents as sweet
As blackberries that tumble from the vine

We stand here by the bus stop, and the breeze
Blows chillier than yesterday – we wait
She won’t be long, although she’s sometimes late
(Devizes traffic, everyone agrees)
Less leaves than yesterday – we watch them fall
She has to come from Trowbridge, after all

© Gail Foster 21st September 2019

My Name Is Ruth ~ a Devizes rhyme

You may have heard of me. My name is Ruth
It’s written on the Cross for all to see
I cried on God as witness to the truth
And died, and here inscribed my history
The tales they told of me – they said I lied
Defied my God before I breathed my last
They said they found the money hid inside
My hand when half a century had passed
You will have heard of me. A widow, I
Came all the way from Potterne in the rain
In winter, to the Market Place, to buy
Eternal shame – I only came for grain
All Wiltshire’s heard of me. My name is Ruth
I may have lied. To God be known the truth

© Gail Foster 12th April 2019

Link to more information here

And audio…

‘As You Like It’ at The Wharf Theatre

 

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I went to the dress rehearsal for the Wharf Theatre’s production of ‘As You Like It’, directed by Liz Sharman, on Sunday.

Described as a pastoral comedy, ‘As You Like It’ is thought to have been written in 1599 and would have been played to an audience of mixed social status and varying degrees of education.  Not being familiar with the play I did some reading before I went, and not for the first time was amazed at the extraordinary level of analysis that has been applied to it over the years.

What if sometimes Shakespeare just wrote stuff for fun?

‘As You Like It’ is a story of lovers and fools, relationships and rivalry, romance and reconciliation.

Duke Senior, having been deposed by his brother Duke Frederick, has set up camp in the Forest of Arden.  Back in the court his daughter Rosalind has fallen in love with Orlando, the son of one of Duke Frederick’s enemies, during a wrestling match arranged by Orlando’s brother Oliver in order to get rid of him.

Asa result of the wrestling match both Rosalind and Orlando are separately cast out of the court.  Rosalind dresses as a man and takes to the forest with Celia, Duke Frederick’s daughter, who disguises herself as Rosalind’s sister, and Touchstone, a jester.  Orlando, accompanied by his elderly servant Adam, also takes to the forest, and occupies himself looking for Rosalind and leaving appalling poetry in trees.

Other characters of note are Jacques, a fool/traveller/hermit, shepherds Corin, Silvius and Phoebe, and Audrey, a goatherd, and smaller parts include a vicar, the Spirit of Summer, singers and minor lords.

The set was simple and effective, with a plain white backdrop and flowers, and trees indicated by struts of wood and subtle coloured shadows.  Characters were dressed in a combination of Victorian and present-day dress, and the songs (there are more songs in this than in any other Shakespeare play) were folky and traditional with hey nonny nos and contemporary overtones.

Actors, then; what struck me most was the different ways they handled the complex script.  There are two ways to read Shakespeare, full on theatrical and naturalistic, and both styles were mingled here with good results.  Whilst it was easy to spot the trained actors in this show everyone delivered their lines well and there were very few hiccups.

Helen Langford played a feisty and modern Rosalind (the largest female part in Shakespeare) with admirable principal boy verve and mischief, and Lucy Upward gave a fine performance as her cousin and confidante, Celia.  Lewis Cowen was suitably regal and wise as Duke Senior, and Phil Greenaway (in his first Shakespeare role), and Duncan Delmar played Orlando and Silvius respectively in endearingly hapless and lovelorn fashion.

But it was the fools who stole the show for me.  There’s a lot about foolishness and wisdom in this play, and it is the fools and the folk of the fields who have the best lines.

‘All the world’s a stage’ muses the melancholy and world-weary Jacques, played by Oli Beech with glorious floridity, and ‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool’ says Touchstone, played as a charismatic Northern lad by Daz Beatson.

‘As You Like It’ is full of sage advice on love and life, comedy moments, and fine little intricate speeches.  I enjoyed Touchstone’s explanation of the seven causes and Jacques’ performance of the seven ages of man; I laughed at the vicar on the scooter and the phrases ‘country copulatives’ and ‘the horn, the horn, the lusty horn’, at Abigail Newton’s hilarious portrayal of Audrey the clumsy goatherd, at the sheep noises (not sure I was supposed to laugh at that bit), and at Orlando’s terrible poetry; I thought the wrestling was exciting, and the music wistful (credit to Stuart Mayling for his musical and wrestling skills), and I liked the wordplay.

And I looked for the grand themes referred to in my researches on Google.

Echoes of Ecclesiastes, echoes of Arcadia – oh it’s deep enough in places, and the more intellectual types in Shakespeare’s audience would have found plenty to delight them. You could analyse this play till the sheep come home (four centuries of analysis, for goodness’ sake!) but it is predominantly a wild and witty romp, and I think Liz Sharman’s wonderfully lively and watchable production hit exactly the right note.

Shakespeare wrote this for fun, and The Wharf Theatre’s production of ‘As You Like It’ is a fun show.

Shakespeare, fun?  Yes, really!

Well done.

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© Gail Foster 11th March 2019

(review and photographs)

The MP for Devizes, Claire Perry

Written to mark the occasion of the Rt Hon Claire Perry MP’s recent appearance on Question Time…

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The MP for Devizes, Claire Perry
Used to be fragrant and merry
Now she’s pointy and bitey
And not that politey
And bitter as bargain bin sherry

Our MP, the Honourable Claire
Has teeth that she quite likes to bare
In public debate
But her hair’s really great
And she did crack a blowjob joke. Yeah.

Claire Perry, MP for Devizes
Is worthy of Parliament prizes
At home we handle
Our bell, book, and candle
Whenever her presence arises

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© Gail Foster 17th November 2018