Entertaining Mr Sloane – Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham

Writer: Joe Orton

Director: Ian Craddock

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Joe Orton’s black comedy, Entertaining Mr Sloane, premiered in London in 1964 and has had several revivals since. It tells a story of sexual manipulation, though who is being manipulated and by whom becomes less clear as the play progresses.

Kath (Elaine Ward) is a middle-aged lady living with her father, Kemp (Ivor Williams). She happens across the younger Mr Sloane (Jake Hodgkinson) and invites him to lodge with her.

Sloane holds a fascination for Kath and she quickly confides in him of a son born out of wedlock that her brother, Eddie (William Hayes), forced her to give up for adoption.  From the off, the atmosphere is charged sexually with Kath’s desire leading her to seduce Sloane. With one eye on the main chance, Sloane acquiesces, becoming some sort of cross between a surrogate baby and young lover to Kath.

Kemp is immediately suspicious of Sloane and the men’s relationship becomes somewhat antagonistic. Less straightforward is the relationship between Eddie, Kemp and Sloane; Kemp refuses to speak to Eddie having discovered him committing ‘some kind of felony’ in the bedroom as a young man. Eddie is protective of Kath to the point of jealousy, but when alone with Sloane soon falls under his spell, giving him a job as his chauffeur with a uniform and cap of leather.

Months pass and tensions rise. After a tragic and violent incident, the power balance in the household shifts and the characters need to find a new way forward.

Although Entertaining Mr Sloane deals with the darker depths of the human psyche, the writing includes plenty of light and shade with comic moments thrown into the mix. Ian Craddock’s snappy direction ensures that the verbal tennis is shown to good effect and the play fairly rattles along, although that can mean that some lines lose a little impact; on this first night, there were also a few hesitancies in delivery.

Ward’s Kath wears her heart on her sleeve, her needs and desires quite transparent to all, especially Sloane who initially seems to have the upper hand. Her desperate need for companionship and the distress at losing her baby are clearly signposted, while her somewhat clumsy attempts at a subtle seduction raise wry smiles and outright laughs even as we feel slightly awkward for her. Nevertheless, Ward ensures that Kath is always the centre of attention when on stage.

Hayes’ Eddie is more complex. His desire for the young man quickly becomes apparent, as does Sloane’s understanding that here is another potential person to manipulate. Something of a bully, Hayes nevertheless makes Eddie a rounded character, showing different aspects of a complex personality – the play’s setting is the 1960s: the sexual revolution is in full swing, but decriminalisation of homosexuality is still to come and Eddie is still firmly in the closet. It’s perhaps unfortunate that Hayes’ London accent, unlike that of the other cast members, is a touch unconvincing.

Hodgkinson’s Sloane is well played, if without too much subtlety. While his motives are initially a mystery to the other characters, we are clear from the off that he is a wrong ‘un, determined to use whatever tools he has to make his life more comfortable – and if that means grotesquely pandering to the needs of a needy older lady and man then so be it.

Williams’ Kemp is perhaps the least well-developed character. His distrust of Sloane and despair at his son’s choices are clear enough, but he remains largely a cipher.

Craddock’s directorial lightness of touch ensures that the comedy in Orton’s writing comes to the fore so that what could be a dark and voyeuristic experience becomes an entertaining evening, albeit with uncomfortable moments, and one that’s worth making the effort to see.

Runs until 14 October 2017 | Image: Mark Webster

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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