Entering the theatre, it looks as if there has been an explosion: chairs hang in mid-air, a wardrobe tilts in empty space and a ladder to nowhere is suspended above the stage. Designer Oliver Townsend has borrowed to clever effect from Cornelia Parker’s 1991 installation Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View to create the setting for Harold Pinter’s Godot-influenced 1960 play about what happens when damaged Aston invites a homeless man, Davies, back to his room in a house owned by his bully boy brother, Mick.
It might be read as a play about how a good deed does not go unpunished; it could be seen as a warning that blood will always be thicker than water; and it is often like watching a chess game in which one player thinks he has a winning move only to discover that he has been tactically outplayed.
Director Christopher Haydon plays it as a parable of our times, a migration story in which Patrice Naiambana’s wheedling, blustering Davies is trying desperately to get his foot in the door and find a place where he can be safe. That might sound reductive but Townsend’s design lifts it from the literal and into an enclosed dream space, one rumbling with distant thunderstorms, which crackles with electricity recalling the electro-convulsive therapy that Jonathan Livingstone’s Aston has been forced to undergo. This room is a place of shadows where potential dangers lurk: the first few moments are brilliantly handled, as David Judge’s Mick unexpectedly makes his presence felt.
Haydon gives this timeless play a little shove out of the 1960s and into the 21st century, although inevitably there are references in the script that jar. But he and Naiambana treat Davies with real compassion. We’ve seen sinister versions of Davies. This one shows us his vulnerability – and how poverty, homelessness and constant uncertainty make you duck and dive, creating paranoia about those who might be getting ahead of you in the brutal game of survival. It makes this Davies’s racism all the more believable.
It’s an evening that, like Davies, is in danger of outstaying its welcome. Judge doesn’t always manage the disconcerting changes of mood that should make Mick such a terrifying adversary. But Livingstone provides fine support as the burned-out Aston, a quiet husk of a man incapable of building the shed he dreams of constructing.
•At Bristol Old Vic until 30 September. Box office: 0117 987 7877.