Fifty years after playwright Joe Orton was murdered by his partner Kenneth Halliwell comes a revival of his most famous play. When it premiered in 1965, the text had been censored by the Lord Chamberlain, but those segments have been restored in this terrific production.
You might expect the humour that outraged the establishment back in the day to now feel slightly twee, with no more sauce content than a seaside postcard. But the genius of Orton is that while the jokes won’t send us screaming into the streets and manning the barricades, the humour remains relevant and we can now laugh in a more knowing way — jokes about bent coppers and the Catholic Church still have the required edge because of everything that’s come to light since.
But the biggest taboo Loot challenges is the ceremony and ritual surrounding death, and it’s debatable whether we’re any more comfortable with that today. And Orton certainly pushed the boundaries. It’s the day of Mrs McLeavy’s funeral and gathered in her home are her bereaved husband, son Hal and the nurse who has tended the dead woman in her final weeks.
Hal is preoccupied by the fact that he and fellow dodgy geezer Dennis, who is also the undertaker and Hal’s lover (homosexuality was still illegal when the play was written and is certain to have got the censor in a tizz), are trying to hide the loot from a bank robbery. Where better to stash the cash than in the coffin? But what to do with the corpse?
Meanwhile, Nurse Fay probably had something to do with the demise of Mrs McLeavy and is now trying to get her clutches into the widower, having already seen off seven partners and pocketed the inheritance.
It has all the ingredients for a pitch-black, dizzying farce, which plays out increasingly absurdly as the body and cash are continually swapped from coffin to cupboard and back again and the corpse of the Mrs McLeavy is subjected to ever more indignities.
Proceedings rattle along at a frenzied pace and the cast have fun with the plot’s ludicrousness. Christopher Fulford as tenacious detective Truscott and Sinead Matthews as the nurse are superb, rattling out the one-liners like machine guns, while Sam Frenchum and Calvin Demba make a pair of likeable rogues.
A special plaudit must go to Anah Ruddin as the body of Mrs McLeavy, who is bundled, tossed around and even striped naked at one point. She certainly deserved her ovation at the end.
Joe Orton was a writer ahead of his time taken before his time. This production is a reminder of that and what might have been had he been writing now, freed from the censor’s beady eye.
Loot is at Park Theatre, London until 24 September
You can find our theatre reviews at radiotimes.com/theatre