Writer: Joe Orton
Director: Michel Fentiman
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
When Joe Orton’s life was cut short so cruelly in 1967, he left behind only a small body of works. Loot was his second stage hit, following quickly on the heels of Entertaining Mr Sloane and, 52 years after its first appearance, its ability to shock audiences has, inevitably, diminished. However, expectations that its black comedy would have dated are thwarted emphatically here in a revival that is consistently hilarious and reveals the play to be surprisingly relevant to the modern world.
Social conventions and the pillars of British life are Orton’s targets as he ridicules hypocrisy and pomposity, showing little mercy. Marriage, death, the church (particularly Catholicism) and the law all fall victim to the writer’s subversive pen. The plot of Loot could have been inspired by one of the 1950s Ealing comedies, but the play is stripped of all traces of their gentleness and gentility, and wider influences, ranging from the absurdity of Ionesco to the lunacy of The Goon Show become detectable.
Orton wrote for radio before finding success in theatre and his style betrays those origins, with almost every line of dialogue leading to a verbal gag. However, the success of this play also relies heavily on visual flourishes, which are plentiful in this production. Most notably, a running joke concerning a corpse brings repeated howls of laughter, allowing Anah Ruddin to steal the show without speaking a word or moving a muscle.
The problem with this type of anarchic comedy is that it can often be difficult to sustain at a high level for long, but Orton keeps it on the boil throughout two acts and Michael Fentiman’s effervescent production rarely flags. Gabriella Slade’s set design, a sombre chapel with dark wooden panelling, is a little out of place when all the play’s action occurs in the home of the McLeavy family, but it works in giving an ironic air of reverence to a play that is entirely irreverent from beginning to end.
Sinéad Matthews is a morbid joy as the seven-time black widow Fay, who always finds justification for her misdemeanours in her Roman Catholic faith. Having nursed the stricken Mrs McLeavy towards her death, perhaps helping her on her way, she turns to her bereaved husband (Ian Redford) and persuades him to propose to her by telling him that two weeks would be a suitable period of mourning. Ne’er-do-well son Hal McLeavy (Sam Frenchum), hampered by an inability to tell lies, has worthy ambitions to establish a brothel and has just joined forces with undertakers’ assistant Dennis (Calvin Demba) to rob a bank. Where else to hide their loot but in Hal’s mother’s coffin?
Dennis, a father of five illegitimate children, casually exchanges kisses with Hal while proposing marriage to Fay, giving the play the sexual ambiguity in which Orton revelled. The police, with whom the playwright himself had brushes, are represented by the dim-witted, corrupt Inspector Truscott, made a coarse bully by Christopher Fulford’s performance.
The word “Ortonesque” has now entered the English language and this fine revival of Loot shows us exactly why. The writer’s distinctive blend of various comedy styles feels uniquely British, even though it is British life that it lampoons so savagely. The play easily stands the test of time and it leaves us regretting that there are so few others like it.
Runs until 24 September 2017 | Image: Darren Bell