Matthew Warchus’s new production of The Caretaker at the Old Vic theatre sees Harold Pinter’s tragicomedy performed with an impressive set, humorous gusto and a cast including Timothy Spall from Mr Turner and the Harry Potter movies. This production of Pinter’s first commercially successful play, first performed in 1960, features three internally isolated characters; they speak in lengthy monologues about their individual goals whilst taking frustratingly little action to achieve them, focusing their energies instead on antagonising one another.

Hunkered down in a naturalistic set – a shabby London attic, fully-furnished by designer Rob Howell with peeling wallpaper and a jumble of household ornaments of the time – we see the well-known story play out. Vulnerable handyman Aston (Daniel Mays) sets up camp for a tramp called Davies (Timothy Spall) in his bedsit, saving his guest from a night of sleeping rough on the streets. Aston’s domineering younger brother and landlord Mick (George MacKay) shows up at the end of Act One and Davies, who is initially intimidated by Mick, becomes increasingly loyal to this new figure of authority, biting the hand that fed him to be of service to his former tormentor.

Before the show starts and throughout the performance it is raining outside the attic. There is a bucket hanging from the ceiling that the text refers to periodically, explaining – or perhaps excusing – the grandiose set feature of rain falling on the attic roof as the audience enter the auditorium. Large chunks of the drama play out in real time and the script, which favours playful pauses and ellipses over action, supports this slow pace. For example, Aston declutters an area of the room, moving the rusty sink, the lawnmower and other items of excess “stuff” as Davies refers to it, eventually revealing the second bed he’s been talking about all the while.

Warchus’s production employs physical theatre and this style of movement sews together the realism of the script with the absurdity beneath so perfectly. This blend is at its best in the farcical scene in which all three characters take turns gracefully snatching Davies’s bag from one another; and when Davies’s mundane mutterings about the dark are interrupted by Mick chasing him, in surreal fashion, with a light-up hoover. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting is particularly effective in this scene, in which the entire stage is in darkness until Davies illuminates his face with a match flame.

Mays’s Aston earns our pity with his troubled timidity and emotional monologue about his electroconvulsive therapy. At the same time, both Spall’s Davies and MacKay’s Mick have us giggling enough to counter our sympathy for Aston. Spall has a witty script to rely on; however, it’s the jaunty step and camp attitude he brings to the role of Davies that hauls in the laughs. With his pointy shoe tipped, he appears horrified as he professes he’d never wear suede, and the long pause he leaves before questioning “check?” to Aston’s shirt choice has the audience in fits. MacKay, who spits his gabble of opinions about fancy fabrics at an ever-quickening pace, earns laughs aplenty along with an impromptu round of applause for his efforts. His spiel about turning the flat into a “palace”, and the excessively high rent options that would price Davies out, have never been more relevant than for today’s audience, living amidst the London housing crisis.

At the beginning of the play, you can’t help but wonder why Aston takes Davies in. Perhaps he felt coerced by the slyly tactical tramp. However, Aston’s story about refusing a drink of Guinness served in a thick mug instead of thin glass hints at a guilty conscience for his comfortable situation. As the play wares on, however, and Davies’ complaints pile high – the draft, the need for another clock, the brown laces not matching the black shoes – you wonder with frustration why he cannot be grateful to he who supplied him with shoes, a jacket and a roof over his head. Why does Davies switch his loyalties to the bullying force who has promised similar offerings but supplied nothing?

The Caretaker is one of Pinter’s many plays featuring a destructive intruder who manipulates the easily dominated and unsettles a home. Thankfully, Aston snaps the seal off the underlying conflict, blurting out “I don’t think we’re hitting it off”, in an understatement that spares him an ending similar to Pinter’s Teddy in The Homecoming, who leaves his family home defeated, alienated and alone.

The Caretaker is playing at the Old Vic until 14 May. For more information and tickets, see the Old Vic website. Photo: Manuel Harlan