Simon Paisley Day
The revival of Loot at the Tricycle and now Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Trafalgar Studios allows something of a re-appraisal of Joe Orton, 40 years on from his premature death.
Two productions may not amount to a renaissance but it does represent a fair proportion of Orton’s output, cut off as it was in its prime in 1967. At this distance, I must say Entertaining Mr Sloane, his first major success in 1964, stands up pretty well.
Nick Bagnall’s punchy and broad-winged production brings out much of the brilliant playfulness of Orton’s writing. There’s depth (and some perfect comic timing) in Imelda Staunton’s squat Kath and, to an extent, in Simon Paisley Day’s lanky Ed.
It’s hard to believe these two came from the same womb, an incongruity that heightens the comedy. Matthew Horne’s Sloane is less successful. There’s nothing wrong with the young TV star’s transfer to the stage and he’s likeable enough, but there is the problem. His characterisation lacks the hard edge Orton gives the pyschopathic smoothie.
John Lahr, Orton’s biographer, refers to Sloane’s lack of guilt and “refusal to experience shame”. Horne seems too buffeted by the drives of others this is a young man willing to sleep with anyone and do anything that serves his purpose. Often considered as closely autobiographical, Orton’s Sloane wields his sexuality like a stiletto, manipulating every turn of events to his advantage, and more knowingness would have helped the performance.
At this early stage of his career, Orton shows tremendous grasp of stagecraft in the way plot and characterisation unfold, often with great subtlety. With strong echoes of the landlady/lodger, mother/lover situation in The Birthday Party, it is at its most Pinteresque in the circling of the characters, as they battle it out for control of each other and their own basic desires.
Even the pathetic Kath – and Staunton provokes some genuine sympathy – dips and dives, changing direction and loyalties in order to gain her ends. Primal urges, some buried deep, over-ride any sense of decency, with a reversion to dubious morality when they’re thwarted.
It was good to hear the hysterical laughter of the first half subside into discomfort as the play spins into outright viciousness and violence. Orton would have liked that. The sight of a helpless old man (excellently decrepit Richard Bremmer) set upon by an opportunistic young thug caused some sharp intakes of breath.
This production works on more than one level. Anyone wanting to see two well-known actors in a very funny comedy won’t be disappointed. Step back and listen to Orton’s anarchic voice thundering across four turbulent and tightly-spiralling decades and you’ll get a whole lot more from it.