Trafalgar Studios, London – until 18 August 2018
Arguably, the revival of a 25-year-old script is done for one of two reasons; either its excellent writing simply entertains, or it is pertinent to today’s societal trends. With Killer Joe, the rationale is unclear. Billed as a blackly comic thriller, it makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing at times, before switching into an almost farce that can surely not be the intended effect.
The titular Joe Cooper (Orlando Bloom) is a detective by day and contract killer by night. Chris Smith (Adam Gillen) and his father Ansel (Steffan Rhodri) hatch a scheme to hire Joe to shoot Adele (Chris’ mother and Ansel’s ex-wife) and then cash in on her life insurance. Texan to his core and complete with cowboy hat, Joe wreaks havoc within the Smith family before even stepping inside their home.
Although it is Joe who sets the course for the tale, the story’s real focus is Chris’ sister Dottie (Sophie Cookson), an innocent 20 year old taken by the hitman as a retainer pending the life insurance payout. Ownership, agency and inequality are the dominant themes in the play, with the three intersecting most powerfully in the pawn-like Dottie. Cookson is found to be consistently captivating as she captures a young woman transitioning into adulthood.
Bloom unquestionably brings star power to the stage but it appears to take him some time to get comfortable as Joe. During the second half, however, he comes more into his own, unleashing the dreadful power that has been quietly simmering below the surface. Elsewhere, Rhodri quietly shines, oscillating seamlessly between disinterest, flippancy and pain.
The other star of the show is its formidable creative trinity as sound, lighting and set designers conjoin to great effect. As a trailer park is neatly transposed on to the stage, the focal point of Grace Smart’s spectacular set is the Smith family home with an impressive depth and attention to detail that suggests authenticity throughout. Edward Lewis’ score and sound design complements the other elements of this production, despite its very occasional tendency to veer towards melodrama. Richard Howell’s lighting design is flashy (often quite literally) and precise.
Yet for all of this production’s technical excellence Tracy Letts’ message remains unclear, with the onstage abuse of power proving to be as discomforting as it sounds. Even more jarring is the audience’s laughter at such abuse. As today’s headlines focus on morality and exploitation, it is hard to reconcile a truly menacing threat (even in dramatic fiction) being viewed as humour – and it is equally difficult to couch Killer Joe as either entertainment or art.
Runs until 18th AugustReviewed by Bhakti GajjarPhoto credit: Marc Brenner