Thursday, July 30, 2009

(No.42) Joe Orton's "Loot"

On August 9, 1967 Joe Orton at age 34 was murdered by his lover Kenneth Halliwell in their Islington (London) apartment. Orton, an English playwright of the 'kitchen sink' school, certainly did not belong in any sense to the 'swinging' London of the 1960s whose images of Carnaby Street, Twiggy, the Rolling Stones et al so enchanted North Americans of a certain age -- and still do. "I'm from the gutter," declared Orton, "and don't you forget it because I won't."  

In his brief career Joe Orton wrote 9 plays and 3 novels (although several of his works were published posthumously). He is largely forgotten by or unknown to North American theatre audiences these days. A couple of his plays were presented on Broadway but did not succeed although they had in London. Forty years on:  all the more credit to Albert Schultz's Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto for mounting Orton's 1965 play "Loot".

Pat and I attended and greatly enjoyed the Soulpepper production. "Loot" is a dark comedy, a farce really but certainly not of the "No Sex Please, We're British" kind. Indeed anyone who has a sense of what the London stage predominantly still was in the 1960s can easily imagine the sort of reaction  Joe Orton generated with his attacks on various sacred cows -- in the case of "Loot" the police, religion and the dead.

The play involves a London family in the 1960s: a father, a son who is a bank robber and the corpse of the just deceased wife and mother; also -- a sexually active and predatory nurse, a mortician (also in on the robbery) and a detective who is dishonest and somewhat looney. The corpse and the bank loot are moved about frequently in advancing the plot. 

The performances by the cast of "Loot" are uniformly strong, the accents well done, the delivery crisp and suitably fast for the pace necessary for this black farce. Two of the cast must be singled out: Michael Hanrahan as the policeman "Truscott" and Oliver Dennis as the widower "McLeavey". [Hanrahan was a founding member of the Soulpepper Company in 1998 along with artistic director Albert Schultz and 10 other actors.]

We just recently attended performances of plays by Oscar Wilde at Stratford and Noel Coward at the Shaw Festival (see the reviews in (No.35). Soulpepper's presentation of "Loot" is, in both its performances and our enjoyment, superior to both those presentations.

The tragic end to Orton's life was marked by a line he might have written and would almost certainly have enjoyed. At the scattering of his ashes and those of his lover and murderer (who had killed himself after clubbing Joe to death with nine hammer blows to the head) Orton's sister took a handful from both urns and said " a little bit of Joe and a little bit of Kenneth. I think perhaps a little bit more of our Joe and then some more of Kenneth". At which Orton's literary agent, Peggy Ramsay, snapped "Come on, dearie, it's only a gesture, not a recipe".

"Loot" ends its run at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto on Aug 7. 
Box office contact information: 416-866-8666 //

Alastair Rickard

email: Alastair