Loot - Review

'Loot’ was a play I chuckled aloud reading on the Northern Line years ago, and so I was relishing seeing it performed as the opening play of 2016 at the New Venture Theatre.

l’d looked up the meaning of ‘farce’ and its Latin origins of farcire actually mean ‘to stuff’, which it turns out was literally at the centre of the play I went to see in a full matinee house in the Studio theatre. We were presented with a simple but effective set of a room of the McLeavy family residence in which the characters find themselves cornered by events of their own — or no — making.

There were two doors (to the street and the rest of the house), a wardrobe (variously housing a hundred grand of robbed banknotes and Mrs McLeavy’s body) and a coffin (containing the same in opposite order — keep up!). Mrs M’s mummified corpse posing as a tailor’s dummy did the job all too well, which was essential as in its first showing in 1966 the Lord Chamberlain’s license insisted that ‘the corpse is inanimate and not played by an actress’. It was
hard not to gaze at the late Mrs McLeavy being hoiked around the room without some sympathy. One audience member couldn’t resist a peek into the coffin at the curtain just to check its contents.

This set design and well paced direction, wholly true to Orton's text, enabled his lethal lines of social satire and farcical drama of the miscreants scrambling to keep ahead of the law to be executed with great aplomb. it only lost a little momentum as the play’s plot twists in the last quarter became strained.

‘Loot’ is very much a vehicle for the characters of Fay (alias serial husband despatcher, Nurse McMahon), the orphaned son, Hal, and inspector Truscott (posing) of the Water Board (not the Yard). Emmie Spencer plays Fay well: she starts with some great exchanges with the widowed McLeavy, and her wiles, unashamed opportunism and track record of “match” and (quick) “despatch” of spouses means she runs rings around Hal and his bank job accomplice, Dennis. There are periods when it's a shame she’s underused by Orton compared with her excellent, centre stage playing of Ruth Ellis in last spring’s NVT The Thrill of Love.

Hal has the crucial role in ‘Loot’ for making Orton’s simultaneous satire and farce blend and Frank Leon did this commendably. His acting is stretched and succeeds when shifting from delivering deadpan lines — faced with burying his Mum naked, he deplores such ‘a Freudian nightmare’ — right through to the naif boy who’s never grown up and can’t lie where the ‘Loot’ is hidden, thus failing to convince Truscott that Father Jellicoe is really burying the £104,000 of banknotes (‘... by now I’d say it was half—way up the aisle of the Church’). The switch to the violence meted out by Truscott for Hal’s insolence shocks well.

Dennis (Jonny Parlett) is the the least developed of ‘Loot”s main characters, but it was interesting to see the careful direction around the homoerotic undertones to Hal and Dennis’s relationship. One concerned physical touch is in line with this underplayed dynamic for Orton, whose text playfully has Fay teasing Hal that ‘even the sex you were born into isn’t safe from your marauding’, with references to Dennis being ‘a very luxurious type of led with whom Hal is about ‘to elope to the Continent’. Yet, Hal is also an aficionado of brothels and Dennis thinks that his torrid affair with Fay has shown him the way to settle down to matrimony. Yet it is political not sexual anarchy, and societal power plays, that prevail in ‘Loot’.

Alistair Lock’s lot is hard one. Often in quite static short monologues, the widower has to change register from taking Truscott at face value as the inspector posing as a sanitary inspector (‘we can rely on public servants to behave themselves’), through to the indignant householder whose rights to rule in his own home become threatened, culminating in the pennies finally dropping towards the denouement. McLeavy assumes the detective role, realising through identifying the missing glass eye that his departed wife has been defiled and decrying that ‘I have reared a ghoul [Hal] at my own expense’. This replays the the dilemma the audience face throughout in judging Hal’s actions and morality. Fay has the foreshadowing line to him that ‘You’d be some kind of monster’ without his mum’s influence, but actually Hal is indifferent to stuffing the late Mrs McLeavy on her head in the wardrobe and implores, ‘All | ask is an hour or two of Burke and Hare’.

Andy Bell plays Truscott of the Yard consummately. The role has to and does dominate the many scenes he appears in and he equips himself to the usual high standards of his recent Brighton fringe theatre parts. He is at times a dufferish detective in swallowing the dummy (not mummy) plot device, yet sharp enough in catching out Fay by tricking her into revealing her real identity. Bell captures Truscott's unassailable state authority buttressed by crude force to supply the drama and plot drive, but it is the lugubrious menace he imparts in having to reluctantly force his confessions - as per established police procedure — alongside moments of avuncular concern, that is necessary to ‘Loot”s success. Bell’s demanour reminded me of the redoubtable Kenneth Cranham, who played many inspectors on the stage and television, and who interestingly took the part of Hal in the first London production of ‘Loot’ in 1966.

McLeavy initially becomes a willing accomplice to Hal, Dennis and Fay's machinations, and then reverts to type not able to face complicity with Truscott, with the poor widower ultimately deciding his own fate when threatening to turn to the safe authority of his priest’s confessional instead of taking his share of the spoils. Resorting to type of acquiescing in hierarchies does not bring its rewards is Orton’s message.

In fact, Hal’s glee at the prospect of his father being hauled off to the police station where he is expected to meet with a fatal accident brings the audience less to an indictment of Hal and more enlightenment of Orton’s position that you get the police that society deserves. For Orton, McLeavy is no innocent victim in the writer’s take on lower, middle-class British conformity and deference to public servants. Rather it makes him culpable in society’s stifling of Hal, Dennis and Fay’s generation’s lives and unleashes their lurid enterprises.

As ‘Loot”s epigraph signals, quoting George Bernard Shaw, ‘Anarchism is a game at which the Police can beat you’. Yes, while Truscott physically and mentally ‘beats’ Hal, Dennis and McLeavy, it still begs the question who are the real monsters in the play? The corrupt detective turns these moral tables, asking ‘has no one in the house any normal feeling’ as he has ‘never come across such people’ who behave as if ‘affiliated to Bedlam’. Orton decries the family pieties on display and the excellent NVT cast play Hal, Dennis, Fay and McLeavy as devoid of a sense of sin, guilt or immorality. In an Ortonesque world, virtue, if it can be found, is a sham.

Jason Lever