The play that killed Leonard Rossiter is currently enjoying a welcome airing at Upstairs At The Gatehouse in Highgate thanks to a new production by the Tower Theatre Company. Joe Orton’s 1965 offering Loot, both hit and disaster for the late playwright, has a chequered history which perhaps culminates in Rossiter’s backstage death during a 1984 revival at the West End’s Lyric Theatre whilst he was playing Inspector Truscott.
It’s easy to see why it’s a divisive work as Orton’s fresh and punchy writing veers between dark comic genius and end-of-the-pier farce with reckless abandon, with the confidence and irresponsibility of a skilled racing driver flying at full-pelt in danger of losing control at any moment.
The plot sees a pair of young crooks, Hal and Dennis (Paul Isaacs and Dan Usztan) successfully stealing a sizable chunk of loot from a bank by tunnelling through from Dennis’s workplace in an undertaker’s parlour. The police, mainly in the form of Inspector Truscott, are on to them quickly, and; with Hal’s mother lying dead in a coffin, they decide to hide her corpse in a wardrobe and bury the cash in her place; leaving them with the little problems of disposing of the body and collecting their spoils before the iron fist of the law comes crashing down on them.
One of the most successful aspects of Orton’s play is the delicious subplot that sees rancid Catholic nurse Fay (Jean Collins) machinating a way to make the older, wealthier and frailer McLeavy (John Chapman) her latest husband. In the grotesque character of Fay, Orton bombards his audience with the manifold absurdities and hypocrisies of hard line Catholicism, and Jean Collins succeeds in keeping Fay believable by keeping her eye firmly on the religious mania whilst resisting the allure of pantomime villainy. Equally successful is John Chapman’s older widower. With a camp, large, but often affecting performance, he encapsulates the repressed homoeroticism of Catholicism. It could be argued that McLeavy is a kinder portrayal of your pious Catholic, but his ready capitulation to arbitrary authority renders him an ultimately pathetic figure, and it’s only the humanity of Chapman’s performance that retains a smattering of our sympathy here.
If Orton gives both barrels to old school Catholicism his younger characters are conceived as no less amoral. Hal is fascinatingly emotionless, not in the least moved by his mother’s death and concerned only with saving his own neck. Paul Isaacs offers a satisfyingly charismatic interpretation of the part, imbuing Hal with a fey and icy charm with enjoyably busy eye work that recalls Norman Bates. Contrasting nicely is Dan Usztan’s warmer, more effusive and less refined undertaker’s apprentice Dennis. Between the two of them, Isaacs and Usztan find and offer plenty of manly flirting, bringing out a less-than-buried homosexual subtext (Hal calls his friend ‘Baby’). Perhaps this could have been taken even further?
Whilst the four main characters are all great parts, Loot really springs to life when Inspector Truscott is introduced. Masquerading as an employee of the Water Board, Truscott prowls around the house looking to catch out the young criminals and maybe solve a murder case at the same time. The character has to be seen to be believed, since Truscott is such a brilliant and distinctive comic creation whose moments of off-the-wall logic and rapid-fire questions threaten to marry black comedy with fantasy. The verbal dexterity of the part is what made Rossiter an obvious choice for it. Here Julian Farrance wraps his tongue around the quick fire lines, and slick direction ensures that the tension and pace are cranked up and the laughs proportionately increase in frequency once Truscott has been injected into the proceedings.
This production of Loot enjoys an impressively polished and sparky first act. The action after the interval isn’t quite on as firm a footing, though this is partially down to the unevenness of Orton’s writing. Where Hal emerges as the central character of the first act, he’s sidelined for large portions after the break when Orton (infamous rewrites for Kenneth Williams in a different version of the play aside) decides he’s far more interested in Truscott; and with the lion’s share of the lines Farrance becomes more vulnerable on his delivery, and the brilliantly frantic pace reached by the end of the first act is never quite regained. Nevertheless, the manic climax of the piece, where the stage mechanics have to be spot-on to pack any form of punch, is well-conceived and impeccably-timed, maintaining the suspense up to the appropriately callous resolution (you’ll laugh, but you’ll hate yourself for it).
A few reservations aside, Loot is generally fast-paced and laugh-out-loud funny, with a well-cast ensemble who have been wisely directed to ground their somewhat surreal characters with a touch of reality. Whilst Orton’s delightful satire on Catholicism has a more serious point to make, he’s also acidic in his portrayal of the British police force, laying open for ridicule the self-serving corruption of Scotland Yard in the 1960s that tarnished the reputability of the force forevermore. Where the plotting is messy or convenient, one forgives it for the consistently hilarious dialogue. Prescient and joyously unashamed, Loot remains a play with plenty to say, and this production gives you your money’s worth.