Park Theatre, London – until 24 September 2916
Filth, farce and absurdism are individually difficult to pull off so combining all three in a ripely uncensored 50th-anniversary version of Joe Orton’s Loot is high risk, but when it works it’s excellent.
On the surface, it’s a ‘comedy about a bank robbery’ in which the stolen cash is stashed in an occupied coffin by sexually ambivalent Hal (Calvin Demba) and Dennis (Sam Frenchum), with farcical results as a sadistic and irrational police inspector, disguised as a man from the water board, ineptly pursues the case.
Mostly, however, it’s a savagely-scripted lampoon of the Catholic church and 1960s morality with a specially vicious swipe at police procedures and personnel, fuelled by Orton’s disproportionate sentence of six months in prison for defacing library books. The police are ridiculed in all his major plays, but although the blackest of his comedies, Loot is also the most bitter which is perhaps unbalancing: there’s more sexual tension in Entertaining Mr Sloane, and better farcical lunacy in What The Butler Saw.
Some say Orton works best when played as naturalistically as possible, trusting the script to reveal the absurdities and the aphorisms. Michael Fentiman‘s production takes a more stylistic approach, encouraging the cast to point the lines – most notably in Sinéad Matthews‘ rasping Irish vocals as Nurse Fay McMahon, saintly child of Mary and serial killer.
Christopher Fulford‘s bombastic, menacing Inspector Truscott generates most of the mayhem, and as the innocent Mr McLeavy around whom the world collapses, Ian Redford gives an exemplary performance.
Orton was a torch-bearer of mid-century theatrical modernism, and one of the bravest playwrights ever to have challenged public opinion. He rejected the zeitgeist of Osborne and Pinter as readily as the fustian of J B Priestley and Bernard Shaw, preferring to purloin the epigrammatic forms of Coward and Wilde to drive forward a newer and filthier narrative. His works repay both academic study and popular revival, and this production is a credit to the Park Theatre.
The cuts made by the Lord Chamberlain’s office to the original script were slight, but while they take allusions to police corruption, medical malpractice and homosexuality in their stride, contemporary audiences are still audibly shocked by restored references like ‘a brothel run by three Pakistanis aged between ten and fifteen’.
The cast need to ride the laughs without losing the frenetic pace, but it’s a raucous and racy evening.
Until 24 September.
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