“You Can’t Let Your Past Define You,” – Newport Playgoers’ James Reynolds on Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker

Newport Playgoers Society bring Harold Pinter’s classic play The Caretaker to the stage of Newport’s Dolman Theatre this April.

Aston brings Davies, a tramp with pretensions into his derelict household shrine. All that is left of Davies’ past now is the existence in Sidcup of some papers that will prove exactly who he is and enable him to start again. While Aston has dreams, his hopes are tied to his flash brother Mick who aspires to live in a luxury apartment.

The Caretaker is a three-hander play directed by Jack Guard and performed by Chris Bissex-Williams, Ryan Salter and James Reynolds.

James is a familiar face on the Dolman stage having acted in and directed several plays over the years. His most recent appearance being as Wadsworth in the 2022/23 season opener Clue! In 2022, James also became the President of Newport Playgoers Society.

James recently spoke to Andy Howells about his role as Aston in The Caretaker and his role as president in Newport Playgoers Society.

Newport Playgoers’ President, James Reynolds plays Aston in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. Photo: Paul Johnson/Pixels in Time

How are you finding your role as president for the Newport Playgoers Society?

It’s more challenging than playing Aston and more dramatic as well! (laughs)

It’s great, it just takes some getting used to. I’ve been in committees since I was involved with youth theatre, so I’m used to it. It’s a different kind of format being in charge and delegating because I’m used to fixing things myself.

I understand you are possibly the youngest person to be President.

I think I might be. Certainly, in my lifetime as a member of Playgoers, presidents have usually been into their retirement years. I don’t know if I’m lucky or if they plan to keep me that much longer (laughs).

I expect it’s a bit of a challenge going to work, then coming into the theatre. Do you get much breathing space?

No, and in the modern world, particularly with emails, you are never away from anything. You are always connected to what’s going on. I don’t think there’s a day in my life where the Newport Playgoers or the Dolman Theatre don’t get mentioned in some form or another. It’s a good challenge!

What drew you to theatre originally?

When I was in my last year of lower school, my teacher got me involved in drama. Up until that point, we didn’t do drama. Also, my grandfather used to go out on a Friday night and would drink with somebody from the theatre. My grandfather’s friend got me involved and I auditioned and subsequently joined youth theatre when I was 11 and never left.

So, now you are president, do you have to be mindful about what roles you go for within the society?

I eased up on acting a couple years ago to concentrate on the directing side. I’d directed the last couple of Agatha Christie plays and then I wanted to come back and do what I’d done originally. There was a chance to be Wadsworth in Clue! which I did back in September. I’d hung on to that part for three years (initial rehearsals for Clue! had begun before the pandemic) and I wasn’t letting it go.

You must know moderation. It’s good to choose one project a year on top of all the committees and things like that. This role in The Caretaker is an extra one I wasn’t quite ready for. Working it through now it would be either one directing or one acting role alongside everything else.

James Reynolds, Ryan Salter and Chris Bissex-Williams in rehearsal for Newport Playgoers production of The Caretaker directed by Jack Guard. The play runs at the Dolman theatre, Newport from April 19th – April 22nd, 2023. Photo by Paul Johnson / Pixels in Time.

What drew you to the part of Aston in The Caretaker?

I didn’t know much about it. I know Ryan and Chris are very passionate about Harold Pinter, although I haven’t really come across to him that way.

I listened to the audition speech, and it was great, I thought I want to have a go at that. So, it wasn’t so much the part. I thought even if I don’t get the part, I’d like to have a chance to have a go at the speech. I was lucky enough to get the role!

What’s the most powerful message in The Caretaker for you?

It’s that you can’t let your past define you. There’s a point where he lives his life through what has happened to him. He’d been in a mental institution and everything that came through that defines how he deals with people. It gets to the point that he can no longer take that, and you see the spirit come back in towards the end. I think it is looking towards the future and not letting the past dictate.

It must be quite different working with a smaller company as opposed to the bigger productions you’ve usually played in.

It’s a three-hander and not defined by an action or a through plot. It’s very much three people interacting together It’s their personalities and histories that define the state of the play as opposed to an arc. There’s no let-up really, when you’re on, you’re on all the way through. You can get time when you’re in a bigger company to disappear for five minutes and recollect yourself before you reconvene. You don’t get that luxury as such here.

I remember you saying to me after you’d done Clue! That it was exhausting because it was a very physical role.

Wadsworth was a physical role, yes. Aston is far more mentally challenging. Clue! Was a labour of love because I loved the film, especially the last speech when I recreated all the theories. The Caretaker is a journey of the mind rather than a journey of the body.

Do you have a particular favourite environment on the stage?

I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, but I do prefer the Agatha Christie murder mystery, a good whodunnit. I also like a clever plot twist.

I like clever. The Caretaker is a real challenge, there is lots of verbal wordplay, which is clever. It’s almost like moments in time which stop and repeat themselves. You’ve not got an easy journey from the start to an incident, to the end.

Director Jack Guard with the cast of Newport Playgoers’ presentation of The Caretaker, James Reynolds, Chris Bissex-Williams and Ryan Salter. Photo by Andy Howells

After The Caretaker, there is still more coming up for the Newport Playgoers season. As president, are you excited?

Yes. I think a lot of thought goes into what Newport Playgoers do, how the season balances and what works. There is an awful lot of thought in terms of making sure that every audience and demographic is catered for. Every person has something, even if they don’t see everything. There’s something in the season they will enjoy and the same for the actors. We must choose material that keeps our actors and directors both interested and invigorated.

The last play of the season is going to be Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and I know with Steve Bissex-Williams as designer it’s going to look fabulous. Like the work he did on Death of a Salesman, the set will to be something people won’t expect. I’m sure he will make sure the costumes will be as fabulous as possible.

How do you see theatre continuing to work within the community?

It’s something that has changed. I think we’ve lost the brand loyalty that was existent 40 years ago when people joined one group. People are more discerning now and will go for roles that have more appeal to them. I do think its important to keep everything fresh to keep our actors and bring in new people.

For me, I joined the youth theatre when I was quite shy and withdrawn. People who know me, know I can be quiet, but theatre is something that allows me to come out of myself.

I’ve done a lot with our younger generation; Dolman Youth Theatre and PNG. I’ve watched people develop and grow. I think that is the most important thing at any age, for someone to come in and find their hidden self, their hidden passion and see that come alive on stage. It’s a lovely thing to see.

You’re also president at a time when Newport Playgoers approaches its 100th anniversary. Have you all given it much thought yet as to how you will commemorate it?

We’ve started making tentative plans, there are things we want to do. The pressure to make sure we do something that honours not only our history, but also everybody that has put so much into it in the past and present is immense. We want to make sure we honour everything about that. It’s a daunting task, we’ve got some fabulous people including Chris, who has been one of our longest running members and knows the history inside and out, so we rely on both Chris and Steve.

The history is something that is engrained in so many people here. We are very lucky. We had a group recently, which unfortunately folded before it reached its 50th year. It’s very sad to see these things sometimes don’t survive.

Newport Playgoers are in a very privileged situation because we are in the building. The Dolman Theatre is ours and we have a responsibility to make sure that it survives, not only for Playgoers, but also that everybody else still has a venue. I don’t know anywhere that has facilities like this, it’s such a special place.

Keep doing the great work James in bringing people together, it’s been a pleasure chatting to you and I’m not only excited for The Caretaker, but also the further productions at The Dolman from Newport Playgoers over the next couple of years. You’re all doing a fabulous job.

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