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Image: Loot at the Park Theatre
Raphael Bar (Meadows)
Calvin Demba (Dennis)
Sam Frenchum (Hal)
Christopher Fulford (Truscott)
Sinéad Matthews (Nurse McMahon)
Ian Redford (Mr McLeavy)
Anah Ruddin (Mrs McLeavy)
From the producers of Park Theatre sell-out hit The Boys in the Band comes another darkly comic masterpiece: Joe Orton's classic farce Loot.
Uproarious slapstick meets dubious morals as two young friends stash the proceeds of a bank robbery in an occupied coffin, attempting to hide their spoils from the attentions of a psychopathic policeman, a gold-digging nurse and a grieving widower.
The ensuing black comedy shocked and delighted audiences in equal measure when the play premiered five decades ago, winning the Evening Standard Best Play award.
This fiftieth anniversary production is directed by Michael Fentiman, whose credits include two acclaimed shows for the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as the recent Park Theatre critically-acclaimed hit, Raising Martha.
This production of Joe Orton's comic play commemorates the 50th anniversary of the playwright's death in 1967 (at the age of just 34) at the hands of his lover, Kenneth Halliwell.
Orton and Halliwell had languished together in Islington for many years in almost total obscurity until they were convicted of defacing library books in 1962.
Then, after serving a prison sentence for the crime, Orton's career as a playwright took off and by 1964 he had a show in the West End: 'Entertaining Mr Sloane'.
'Loot' premiered the following year, subsequently winning the Evening Standard Best Play award.
Over 50 years later, Michael Fentiman takes the reigns in this commemorative version of a play that initially struggled for success with mixed reviews and many audience members outraged by the immorality of its themes.
More than half a century after it's initial appearance, the big question is whether the play can still entertain, shock and succeed in lampooning Mr Orton's principal targets - the police, church and religion, the estiblishment and morality.
In some ways, 'Loot' is not for the faint-hearted since the plot focuses on death and the unceremonious manipulation of a corpse in the pursuit of criminal activities.
It's a darkly comedic play that has some of the hallmarks of farce but it's not your typical 'trouser dropping' variety of that genre - this is farce of the unique Orton variety.
Gabriella Slade's darkly ominous (almost entirely black) but imposing design sets a suitably moody, funereal and glowering tone for this murkily bizarre play.
The lower part of the design serves as the somewhat faded interior of the McLeavy family home, but the back wall rises to church-like proportions, almost to the roof of the theatre.
It serves not only as a reminder of the ever-present influence of church, state and authority in general, but also has the air of a funeral parlour - linking the home and the impending committal which is about to get underway with the intolerant repression of wider society.
The deceased is Mrs McLeavy, and her body lies in a coffin centre stage as we file into the theatre.
With the corpse barely cold, her former nurse, Fay McMahon, is already helping herself to Mrs McLeavy's personal possessions, sporting a pair of the deceased's 'fluff' slippers even at the start of proceedings.
Nurse McMahon (played by Sinéad Matthews) is an avaricious, money-grabbing woman who has already had seven husbands, all of whom have met with premature deaths in mysterious circumstances, or have 'disappeared'.
Now she has designs on a new spouse - the recently bereaved Mr McLeavy (Ian Redford).
But her plans become entangled with a bank robbery perpetrated by Hal McLeavy - the deceased's son - and his lover-cum-friend Dennis, who happens to work for the firm of funeral directors.
The proceeds of the robbery are hidden in a cupboard in the same room as the coffin, but as the plot unfolds the two get swapped.
Purporting to work for the water board, a police detective called Truscott fetches up, just as the funeral cortège is about to depart, starts to search the house and subjects the occupants to, sometimes violent, interrogation.
In Michael Fentiman's hugely capable hands, Joe Orton's work feels as fresh, innovative and humorous as ever.
Though comedy is a subjective matter of personal taste, for me at least this is one of the funniest plays I've seen and is certainly the best production of the play I've encountered, with an outstanding cast.
Sinéad Matthews' Nurse McMahon is a real joy to watch as she efficiently and unemotionally takes charge of events, and unashamedly goes about executing her mercenary plans, in spite of her apparent commitment to morality and devotion to religous teachings.
Ian Redford's initially compliant McLeavy turns out to be formidable in countering the force of authority in later scenes, and Christopher Fulford offers brutal force combined with sinister, authoritarian obfuscation.
Mr Fentiman introduces a novel and surprising element into this bizarre story which I've certainly not seen before - Mrs McLeavy becomes more of a character in her own right thanks to a demanding and probably exhausting performance by Anah Ruddin - but I'm not going to reveal more details about that, except to say it adds an additional and memorable layer of comedy.
What's really striking about Joe Orton's distinctive writing style are lines which are contrived with the air of beaurocratic legalese blended with the flavour of authoritarian jargon, but which are delivered in a matter-of-fact manner by ordinary people.
And the characters also offer wonderfully absurdist remarks such as when detective Truscott says "I know nothing of the law", or when Fay says "Even God can't work miracles".
In Joe Orton's untimely death, the theatre sadly lost a unique and inventive comic writer, but this top-notch production, of what is probably his most popular work, is a fitting tribute to the playwright's genius.
Stopping short of criminal activities that may land you encarcerated like Messrs Orton and Halliwell, do anything to get a ticket, for this really is an unmissable, blissfully comic, delight.
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ActDrop listing for Park Theatre
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