It’s fifty years, to the month, since Joe Orton was murdered by his lover Kenneth Halliwell. Michael Fentiman’s stylish and entertaining revival of Loot honours him in a way that’s mindful of the fact that this summer also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act which partially decriminalised homosexuality. His production reinstates some of the lines that had been censored by the Lord Chamberlain by the time that this black farce, after its prolonged teething problems, achieved a West End transfer and the Evening Standard Award for Best Play of 1966.
There’s a previously unused speech in which the psychotically corrupt Inspector Truscott, trying to justify bent police practices by historical precedent, declares that Christ was framed and wrongly crucified.
The direction treats it as completely normal that Hal and Dennis are more than just good chums on the sly and Orton’s gleeful exposure of the genteel pieties and hypocrisies of the English is uproariously reinforced by the fact that the corpse of Mrs McLeavy – unceremoniously dumped from its coffin so that the stolen money can be hidden, and then subjected to all manner of indignity – is very well played by a real-life actress (Anah Ruddin) rather than the usual dummy.
Taking its epigraph, in the published text, from George Bernard Shaw (“Anarchism is a game at which the Police can beat you”), the play is prefaced in this production by the recorded voice of Mrs Mary Whitehouse complaining about filth on TV in the famous 1964 speech that launched her crusade: “Last Thursday evening, we sat as a family and watched a programme that started at 6.35. And it was the dirtiest programme I have seen for a very long time.”
It’s an amusing way of setting the play in its historical context because she sounds like the inspiration for Orton’s subversive pseudonym, Edna Welthorpe (Mrs), in whose censorious tones he fired off publicity-generating letters to the press denouncing the depravity of his own shows.
Gabriella Slade’s sleek black design, with its high stained glass windows and illuminated crosses, mocks the insincere religiosity of the McLeavy family by making it look as if, to be on the safe side, they have had one of their rooms converted into a Catholic chapel of rest.
Combining intricate farce-plotting and wordy Wildean epigrams, Orton’s plays set actors a challenge akin to hurtling round an obstacle race while attempting to balance a precarious pile of bone china. Very funny as Fay, the gold-digging nurse who has already buried seven husbands, Sinead Matthews pulls off that trick best here in a production that never quite spirals to delirium. “Had euthanasia not been against my religion I would have practised it.
“Instead I decided to murder her,”: Matthews intones such lines in a severe Irish lilt of righteous reproof that’s as hilariously conscience-free as the determined way she wrestles the Women’s Voluntary Service uniform off the corpse.
The phrase “nothing sacred” could have been invented for her. Christopher Fulford nails the toxic mix of serene stupidity and viciousness in the corrupt Truscott but needs to give him a more sinister, manic edge. Calvin Demba and Sam Frenchum, are perfect as the amoral young pair who fancy that they are the answer to the Kray Twins while only being, rather charmingly, “lambs in rams’ clothing”, as someone once described Orton himself. And Ian Redford does sterling work as the framed, innocent father who stumbles off to his fate thinking it a terrible thing to happen to a man who’s been kissed by the pope.