Joe Orton
Derby Playhouse

Staging a comedy 37 years after it won two awards for best play might seem a daunting proposition: what was in vogue then may appear ridiculously out of date now, social values have changed enormously and what shocked audiences in the past hardly causes an eyebrow to be raised in these supposedly enlightened times.

Derby Playhouse brought in Cal McCrystal, head of clowns at the prestigious circus company Cirque de Soleil, to direct Loot. The Perrier comedy award winner who has directed hit shows for the Edinburgh Festival and on television said he wanted to make the production "very funny and very naughty" - another possible banana skin.

Throw in the debut professional performance of James Bachman, a regular on Radio 4's That Mitchell and Webb Sound, and you have potentially as slippery a show as you're ever likely to see.

But McCrystal and his cast pull it off. It's a resounding success. Loot is extremely funny, the comedy has a remarkable freshness about it and you can't help but marvel at the visual as well as verbal gags.

Loot is described as a "tour de force of bad taste and high farce and by many it is considered as irreverent, amoral and bizarre." Orton thought even more highly of it: "I have a lot of vices but false modesty is not one of them. And the best thing about Loot is the quality of the writing."

Not having seen the play in the '60s, I can't tell how much of the humour is down to Orton and how much praise should be lavished on the cast. Suffice to say that the reputation of anyone associated with this production will take off more quickly than a Rolls-Royce engine.

Before the play gets under way, Bachman (Dennis) and Matt Green (Hal) come out to tell the audience a little about the play and explain what a wonderful evening they're in for. It sets the tone for the rest of the evening as the actors interact with them on every possible occasion.

There is another clever touch before the actual start: a black-and-white slide show of how Derby looked in the '60s which brought murmurs of recognition from the auditorium as long-demolished buildings and shops came into view.

Loot is the story of how Hal and Dennis use a coffin to hide the gains from a bank robbery. But to make room for the loot they have to put Hal's mother's body in the wardrobe.

Nurse Fay, already with seven marriages behind her, has her sights set on wedding number eight to her late patient's husband. But when bungling Inspector Truscott, cunningly disguised as the man from the Metropolitan Water Board, arrives looking for the thieves, secrets from Fay's murky past come to light. Keeping the loot and the body away from the inspector involves everyone in an increasingly tangled web of conspiracy and deceit.

Once the real action gets under way, the laughs come thick and fast. Clive Mendus is wonderful as McLeavy, the grieving husband whose wheelchair seems to have a mind of its own and threatens to pitch him off the stage more than once.

In the second half, when the hearse has had an accident on the way to Hal's mother's funeral, the wheelchair develops a flat tyre and from then on McLeavy's excursions across the stage are little short of hysterical.

At the same time Bachman, who looks so comfortable despite his theatrical inexperience, appears wearing oven gloves as the coffin is partly burnt - an hilarious touch.

The naughtiness is supplied by Lucy Montgomery, whose deliciously over-the-top performance is pitched at just the right level. From her very short nurse's uniform to her foray into the audience while trying to get away from Truscott - "take three aspirins" she advises a member of the audience - she is a delight.

But the honours must go to David Benson, the old-fashioned cop who is relentless in his search of the criminals but also slightly stupid and open to bribery. Benson is best known for his one-man show about Kenneth Williams and during the second half when Truscott declares he is a master of disguise, Benson turns into Williams, Frankie Howerd and Leonard Rossiter before returning to the script.

He even turns to his advantage a moment when he gets his words mixed up, berating the audience for laughing at him and prompting even more hilarity.

With a steady performance by Mathew Baynton as the young policeman Meadows and excellent contributions by the "body", Loot is one huge laugh almost from beginning to end. Highly recommended.

"Loot" runs until November 29th

Reviewer: Steve Orme

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