What The Butler Saw, he does to black comedy in Loot: Deconstruct the genre by taking it to its logical extreme, so we get jokes about rape and child prostitutes, and the naked corpse of an old woman being unceremoniously dragged around the stage. But despite being the first UK staging to restore Orton’s original text with all the censored stuff back in place, what Michael Fentiman’s 50th anniversary production ends up most memorable for is the sharpness of the dialogue. McLeavy’s (Ian Redford) wife died three days ago, and her body is laid out for the last time in their house. Last night his son Hal (Sam Frenchum) robbed a bank with his best friend/boyfriend Dennis (Calvin Demba,) and the loot is stored in a cupboard. Then Inspector Truscott (Christopher Fulford) arrives, demanding to search the house.
Hal and Dennis decide to hide the bags of cash in the only place they think he won’t look – Mrs McLeavy’s coffin. But there’s too many of them to fit, so they have to get rid of the body first.
Gabriella Slade’s set is all-black with stained glass windows, which does at first make it a bit unclear that this is all happening in the family home and not at a church or funeral parlour – the intention is presumably to foreground the theme of death and the way Orton wants to upend the usual solemnity and respect surrounding it. Fentiman certainly does that, by casting an actress rather than a dummy as the corpse at the centre of the action – Anah Ruddin gets stashed upside-down in a cupboard, stripped of her clothes, false teeth and glass eye, and generally subjected to an endless stream of indignities.
The dark slapstick is funny and well-done but it’s the script’s throwaway lines that make for some of the best gags – “We put the Ten Commandments on the coffin, she was a devout follower of some of them.” Sinéad Matthews gets many of the best of these as Fay, the late Mrs McLeavy’s nurse and a serial black widow who’s got her eye on husband #8 (“I’m not a fool.” “Your secret’s safe with me.”) Her husky voice and sometimes OTT performance style suit the comic twist on a siren-like character, while Frenchum’s likeability counteracts some of the unpleasantness of what his character does.
Fentiman has also foregrounded the bisexuality that would have presumably been another shocker for the 1960s audience – Frenchum and Demba’s chemistry means there’s no ambiguity to Hal calling Dennis “baby,” even as they swap tips on what prostitutes to visit. But if much of the play is Orton enjoying how far he can push the boundaries of taste, there’s a real venom in his portrayal of the police, Truscott unconvincingly pretending to be a representative of the water board so that he can circumvent the restrictions placed on him by the law, corrupt and aggressively trying to find someone to frame. For all its childlike thrill at its own naughtiness, Loot has a steely core of satire and a genuine wit, and this production demonstrates why it’s remained popular.
Loot by Joe Orton is booking until the 24th of September at the Park Theatre; then from the 28th of September to the 21st of October at the Watermill Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours including interval.
Photo credit: Darren Bell.