Loot

Joe Orton
Bristol Old Vic
(2004)

In one of those ironies which Orton would have relished, Bristol Old Vic is staging the playwright's most celebrated work, Loot, 54 years(!) after rejecting his services as an actor - Orton failed an audition for the company in 1950.

And this Loot is swag-geringly good. Directed by David Farr, who has already notched up a Best Director award since taking over the reins at the Old Vic with Simon Reade a little over a year ago, the production reunites the director with Tom Piper, associate designer with the RSC, who produced the stunning set for Bristol Old Vic's award-winning A Midsummer Night's Dream last year.

Not that Loot fared so well when it opened at the Arts Theatre, Cambridgeshire, on 1st February 1965 prior to a pre-West End tour. The Cambridgeshire News described Loot as "a comedy that brought so few laughs" and sniffed at "Mr Orton's repetitive and nasty sense of humour." Indeed so hostile was the reception that Loot closed after six weeks and it wasn't until it was revived a year later in London that it became a hit, netting an Evening Standard award.

As the programme for the Bristol production notes, the experience shattered Orton's confidence and made him swear never to write again. One of the main problems was the overly-mannered production and caricatured performances not least by Kenneth Williams, a close friend of Orton's, as Inspector Truscott.

The play is best described as black farce and, as such, needs to be played straight (no pun intended), which is what David Farr does. The performances by the main characters are first rate and the whole production moves with confidence and plenty of snap so that the 90 minutes (one interval) fairly fly by.

The curtain rises on the living room of a house, which in Piper's design, nails the look and feel of the period exactly with its suggestion of an England down at heel - evidence of damp on the walls - and deeply mistrustful of pleasure.

Hal, the son of the household, and his mate Dennis, a hearse driver for an undertaker, have robbed the bank next door to the funeral parlour and have stashed the loot in Hal's wardrobe. The arrival of Inspector Truscott, posing as a Water Board official, prompts panic and the couple hide the money in the coffin of Hal's mother, who has just died, and hide the body in the wardrobe.

Clive Francis, a very experienced stage and TV actor, as Truscott is simply superb and it's difficult to imagine the part better played. He relishes the role through which Orton sends up the police force something rotten. Venal, corrupt, this is a police force which uses subterfuge to gain entry - by posing as a water board official, Truscott sidesteps the need for a search warrant - violence to extract a confession and which takes bribery as its due right. "I thought the police were there to protect us," says McLeavy at one point. "Really sir, I don't know where you get your ideas", replies Truscott.

Andrew Melville is excellent as the put-upon McLeavy, head of the household, as is Pooky Quesnel as Fay, erstwhile nurse to the late Mrs McLeavy and serial husband killer, bringing just the right amount of sauciness to the role. Luke Jardine and Andrew Hogg have fun with the roles of Dennis and Hal respectively, the latter reminiscent of a heavily foppish Rodney Trotter.

Inevitably there is an air of period piece about the play. Mores have changed and it is difficult for audience members of a certain age anyway to appreciate how iconoclastic Loot was. Kenneth Williams records in his autobiography how: "Many visitors backstage said that Orton's dialogue was shocking. But Clifford Evans (actor-manager) went further. He thought it was impermissible."

As yet its irreverence of institutions and revelling in the macabre and black-humoured its tone is unmistakably modern. It's just that we had to catch up with Orton. And somehow I can't help thinking Truscott, peacekeeper and custodian of the law, would see eye to eye with Blair over Iraq only too well.

Pete Wood