Pros: It’s written by Joe Orton.
Cons: It ends.
I’ve long loved Joe Orton and his small oeuvre of delightfully funny plays, all of which are a joy to read. Seeing them staged is a rare treat. Loot was first presented at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 1st February 1965. Now, 50 years after the death of its playwright, this bank job yarn with a deathly twist is back onstage at the Park Theatre.
The events of Loot occur in the front room of Mr and Mrs McLeavy on the day of Mrs McLeavy’s funeral, with her coffin being used as a hiding place for the loot of the title: money stolen in a bank job by her amoral son Hal (Sam Frenchum) and his pal Dennis (Calvin Demba). When a gentleman from the Metropolitan Water Board, aka Inspector Truscott (Christopher Fulford), comes poking about, Hal and Dennis have to try harder and harder to save their swag.
When published it was stipulated that the play’s corpse could not be played by a living actress. Every night of the run in the year of our Lord 2017, Anah Ruddin as Mrs McLeavy will step from her coffin after another feat of gymnastics, to long and loud applause. It was publicly unacceptable for Hal and Dennis to be openly gay in 1965 before the repeal of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967; in Michael Fentiman’s production, Hal and Dennis’s relationship in unambiguous. Through plays such as this we can so clearly see that what one can decently portray onstage is in constant flux.
It is difficult now for us to understand how shocking the content of Orton’s plays were in the period during which he wrote them: 1964-7. But Orton, his plays and his way of life was in direct contrast to the morals of the late 1960’s: a homosexual man who lived with his older lover and tackled such topics as the Catholic Church, British attitudes to death, sex and bereavement, with nothing even second-related to reverence.
The ensemble display tremendous energy, there is a great deal of humping coffins and furniture about the stage; fight trippings, tight strippings, and corpse wrangling. All the choreography is timed to a T. Gabriella Slade’s set design–one black room with two doors either side for the all important entrances and exits—contains nothing that is not used by the actors: coffin, cupboard, chairs, commode, wheelchair, efficient as Orton’s language. And for me, it is the language that is the real joy. As Act Two of Loot progresses the actors build up a quick-fire repartee of such inventive and lyrical dialogue it is like listening to music building to a crescendo; I wanted to shout out to them to slow down as the laughter blocked out hearing the next witty comeback.
Orton and his writing address the decrepit morals of those in power; the emphasis on dogged pursuit of the material no matter the moral rot; the controlling influence of institutions of which the Catholic church is but one example. And just because we can now see homosexual relationships depicted onstage, same sex relationships do not yet stand on equal footing as heterosexual relationships in many parts of the world. We are not as advanced as we like to think. It’s nice to be reminded sometimes.