The rain beats down. The atmosphere is thick with damp, decay and memories. And the house where three misfits collide is decidedly haunted. Matthew Warchus’ new production of this seminal 1960 play by Harold Pinter is less about brooding menace than a thunderous sense of foreboding. Rob Howell’s design of drenched rooftops, sloping, mildewed walls, and stacks of clutter and yellowed paper is pungently evocative; you can almost smell the creeping mould, feel the clammy chill in the air. Yet overall, the production has a curious quality of deliberation and unreality – a rather dated, stage-thriller kind of theatricality.
Gary Yershon’s misjudged, spooky inter-scene music sounds as if it was borrowed from a 1970s supernatural TV show. Even the offstage effects, such as the slamming of the downstairs front door, have a clunkiness that seems to come from another era. Perhaps in part it’s thanks to the cavernous Old Vic space, but this is not a rendering of the play that is rich in subtlety. That’s not to say that it is without its pleasures and fascination. Running at three hours with two intervals, however, it does feel both over-extended and over-emphatic.
That’s a description that extends to the trio of hotly anticipated performances. Timothy Spall is Davies, the slippery itinerant who accepts an invitation to bed down beside the kindly, damaged Aston (Daniel Mays), but turns viciously against his gentle benefactor. Spall’s performance is almost operatic. He growls, swoops and flutes, his voice a gurgling, raspy, nasal whine that bespeaks lungs clogged with decades of London pollution and phlegmy infection. Stick-thin when stripped to his stomach-turningly stained underwear, he’s grimly comical and as pathetic as he is wily. And Spall admirably captures the way in which this stringy survivor is a natural performer, altering his character, his manners and his allegiances with the practised alacrity of a quick-change artist. But there’s something just a little too considered about the portrayal, a little too virtuosic. Spall’s skill is undoubted, but it’s also a shade too conspicuous.
As Mick, Aston’s bullyboy brother, George MacKay has something of an open razor about him. Whip-thin and angular, with his tight black leather jacket and reptilian slicked-back hair, he is sharp, swift, nasty. And he has a boyishness that somehow makes his sadism and volatility more alarming – almost as if he still has a child’s limited sense of consequence.
It’s Mays, though, whose portrayal gives the evening its greatest weight. The actor’s distinctive rounded face lends itself to the suggestion of Aston’s vulnerability. His head is shaped almost like that of a baby, and it looks as fragile as an egg. The speech in which he describes his awful suffering in a mental hospital, where he was subjected to electro-convulsive therapy, is beautifully delivered. Delicate and quietly agonised, it’s an unassuming testimony of an unthinkable, life-altering ordeal, to which the only witness is Spall’s indifferent Davies, storing the information up for future use as a bargaining chip. It’s a sequence that illuminates the entire staging, and a moment of simple sincerity among much that is entertaining, but only occasionally truly penetrating.