David Haig, Doon Mackichan, Javone Prince, Matt Di Angelo, Jim Creighton, James Hayes
Joe Orton’s second play is a farcical comedy, as pumped full of scorn and cynicism as a corpse is with embalming fluid.
Written in 1964 but not achieving real success until the staging of a revised and tightened version in 1966, it is black as a charred coffin, a dark and nasty-hearted thing. But while time has sharpened some of its humour, it has also blunted a lot of it.
It begins with an end. Mrs McLeavy is laid out in her coffin, and though she’s not been dead two days, her bereaved husband is being pressurised into marrying again by his wife’s leggy, predatory nurse: preferably to her.
Meanwhile, the McLeavys’ young son, Hal, and his undertaker friend, Dennis, have been involved in a bank heist and need somewhere to stash the cash.
The solution? Tip mother into a cupboard and hide the loot in the coffin. But their scheme is jeopardised by the arrival of Truscott of the Yard, a police detective intent on ferreting out the truth under the guise of an employee of the water board.
The play’s contempt for authority, and especially the police, still feels very relevant. The character of Truscott is prone to violence and vanity; he’s easily corruptible and borderline bonkers. Some of the remarks, about how the force was once full of men of integrity, have a particularly fresh edge to them. “That, replies Truscott with a sneer, is a mistake which has been rectified.”
Over two hours, the unwavering callous tone makes it, at times, an uncomfortable watch; the hardness is unrelenting. Sean Holmes’ production, while bleakly amusing, never hits the peaks of hilarity it seems to be aiming for. Some strong performances help to balance this out. David Haig, pacing the room with his hands behind his back and his head held low, is very effective as Truscott, relishing each line; it’s a hammy turn but appropriate to the tone of the piece. Doon Mackichan is equally strong as Fay, the amoral, crucifix-sporting nurse who has managed to run seven husbands into the ground, quite literally, and no has her sights set on hubby number eight.
The younger characters Matt di Angelo’s Hal and Javone Prince’s Dennis never quite nail the tone of their roles in the same way. They’re meant to be caddish 1960s lads, with a frisson of sexual chemistry between them, but this never really comes across in their performances. There is, however, something to be said for the casual ease with which Hal discusses disposing of his dead mother’s body in the woods; the only thing that even mildly disturbs him about this prospect is the fact that he would need to undress her first.
Though entertaining in a patchy fashion, this production of Loot works best as a barometer of how humour and notions of what constitutes bad taste have, and haven’t, evolved over the last four decades. Jokes about the manhandling of corpses, errant eyeballs and exploding viscera, elicited guffaws, while jokes about rape and child prostitution were met with nervous, uncomfortable titters. Oddly it was Truscott’s line about the mutually exclusive nature of women and intelligence that drew the only hiss of disapproval of the evening, a very mild line by the standards of the play.