Trafalgar Studios, London – until 18 August 2018
Orlando Bloom – denim, cowboy hat, slicked back hair, twinkling grimace – is as chilled out as a man as Texas can get. You’d have thought being a police detective and contract killer on the side would put you on edge a bit. But Killer Joe is quietly spoken, with the calm rolls and bounces of a Texan voice. Around him is the madness.
Chris (the manic and fantastic Adam Gillen) wants his mother dead. Him, his sister, his dad, his dad’s new wife – none of them care if she’s dead or alive, but all are very keen on the $50,000 life insurance policy she’s got dangling over her head.
For Tracy Letts’ first play (he won the Pulitzer years later for August: Osage County, another ‘family goes batshit’ drama), it is almost perfectly structured and paced. Each dark twist is unravelled delicately, each scene is a steadily heating pressure cooker. And the dialogue! Cutting, mean-spirited and genuinely witty (as opposed to ho ho ho theatre jokes).
This, of course, could all fall flat in the hands of idiots; thankfully Simon Evans (who wonderfully revived another Letts play, Bug, not too long ago) almost perfectly directs an incredibly talented cast. Steffan Rhodri – never a wrong call – is excellent as the coach potato father, a sort of murderous Homer Simpson. Neve McIntosh – his new wife Sharla – is a great mix of smiles on show and plots cack-handedly whirring away behind the eyes. Gillen does his ‘eyes bulging mania’ again, but it’s perfectly suited to the dim plotter son Chris. And of course Bloom is all charisma, and his dark, slightly seedy charm neatly suits Killer Joe’s menace.
The only ounce of criticism I have for this production is Sophie Cookson as Dottie, the daughter who Killer Joe claims as as retainer for the hit job. Her performance is one of the few shades of innocence in this grim world. Her romance/drawn out assault is one of the most scarring threads in the play. But her accent is a rodeo that bucks around all over the place. Which is a bit distracting.
The masterstroke in all of this is the Reservoir Dogs-style ending; a tornado of thrown punches, gun shots, doors slammed on heads, guns dropped, throats grabbed. No flimsy stage punches here. I felt every beat. Evans cranks up the speed, then slows it right down, everyone slurring into brief slow motion. Ten out of ten for violence.
A final note of praise should go to the design: eerie trailer park set by Grace Smart, dustily sunny then nightmarishly colourful lighting by Richard Howell, and chilling music cues and unsettling underscoring by Edward Lewis, A sharper, tenser, more violently entertaining night in the theatre you will not find.