Phil Willmott

Review: LOOT at the Park Theatre

LOOT - Park Theatre I can remember a time when productions of Joe Orton's comedies were as ubiquitous as Noel Coward's.

Although stylistically these gay writers couldn't be more different, both their work symbolised a theatrical era. If Coward was all about a mid Twentieth Century style and wit that has turned out to have timeless appeal, the spiky, surreal, dark humour of Orton's writing, conceived to shock and be anti-establishment in the 1960s, can either be roll-on-the floor hilarious or seem dated, infantile and tedious depending on the national mood of the decade in which it's performed.

Since the anger and crisis of the 1980's Orton's rather fallen out of favour and a relatively recent West End revival starring a TV comedian sunk pretty quickly.

There's no doubt that Orton's gothic turn of phrase, parodying the pomposity of pretension, still generates gales of laughter but is Loot still shocking after all these years?

Actually yes, although not in the way I expected.

The plot, such as it is, concerns two thieves whose loot ends up in a funeral parlour, the mother of one of the thieves has died and the stolen money is in her coffin. The police arrive as represented by the eccentric Truscott and much farcical action ensues in which everyone tries to cover their tracks and get the money. It's all a vehicle for exploring the hypocrisy of how the Catholic Church regards death, the process of mourning and the corruption and hypocrisy of the police. But mostly it's a purposely shocking framework on which to hang purposely shocking one liners.

Thanks to my own Ortonesque farce of pretension and idiocy I arrived 10 minutes late due to the back-street, north London theatre's pretension in starting a press night 30 mins early, West End style, and my own idiocy for not spotting this.

By the time I took my seat the action was already fully wound and the glorious one liners were zinging their way around Gabriella Slade's handsome set.

Calvin Demba and Sam Frenchum are very sexy as the two cute but stupid, wannabe master criminals, encouraged by director, Michael Fenimen, to give full reign to the homoeroticism of their character's relationship. Sinead Matthews is terrific as dodgy nurse Fay, embodying the allure, cruelty and inscrutability of the way women were portrayed in the 1960s. Christopher Fulford gives the police chief the requisite gruff and often inadvertently funny thuggery and Ian Redford as the bereaved husband mixes fury and befuddlement to great comic effect.

The disrespect for death with the manhandling and disfigurement of a corpse isn't as outrageous now that you can view similar material any night on Netflix. Corrupt policemen have become the norm in crime drama, homosexuality is now so openly and regularly portrayed in popular culture that it barely registers. But the script contains enough jokes which have become politically incorrect that lines can still induce audience gasps at their vintage sexism and racism, jolting us to laughter in a whole new way.

As an example there's a joke about a Muslim brothel. I imagine at the time it was written this was shocking because of the brothel reference, these days it's the Muslim bit that stands out.

It's the mark of great writing that it morphs into something of new relevance each time it's revived. Such is the case with Loot. Based on this surefooted revival we can safely conclude that, yes, Joe Orton's plays could still outrage establishment thinking. But now that the liberal intelligentsia dominate theatre going he shocked tonight's appreciative, highly entertained audience in ways he couldn't possibly have predicted.