When it was first performed back in 1965, Joe Orton’s Loot was an unsurprisingly controversial production. You don’t mock the Catholic church and the police in one fell swoop and hope it goes unnoticed. Orton wanted it to be noticed, though; his inappropriate comedy got precisely the appropriate response. The play never really got off the mark until its second run, when audiences realised that Loot was symptomatic of its time – attitudes towards sex, death, religion and authority echoed how the world was changing. Loot was as much a social commentary as it was a farce.
That was back in 1965, though. In 2018? Not so much. A lot has happened in half a century and, unfortunately, this new production from BlackRAT demonstrates just how dated it has become. Yes, Loot is symptomatic of its time but, unlike some of the other big social satires of that century, it remains stuck there. Making cheap digs at religion and the police is tame in the twenty-first century, while quips about prostitution and homosexuality border on tasteless.
It isn’t all the script’s fault though. Cleverly used audio and video projection gets Richard Tunley’s production off to a promising start, but we don’t see any of those modern touches again. The play reverts to type from then on and, while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with Tunley’s direction, that lack of originality is very noticeable. The play grounds to a halt and, other than some brief moments of elevation, it never really picks up consistently again.
It’s a shame that Tunley plays it so safe, because he has actors at his disposal who are really giving it their all. Standing out from the ensemble by a mile is Sarah-Jayne Hopkins, who does the femme fatale routine with aplomb. Delivering her lines with relish and really embracing the physicality of the role, she is by far the most engaging presence on stage. Everyone chips in, of course; there are strong performances across the board, but they’re hamstrung by the direction. They deserve better.
Where Tunley really drops the ball is his casting of Julie Barclay as the corpse of Mrs McLeavy. Let’s be clear: Barclay is excellent and deservedly elicits some of the biggest laughs of the night. That’s the problem, though. It’s never funnier than when she’s on stage and, after her first appearance, everything else pales in comparison. You can almost feel the audience willing her to return. It also means that, when Barclay is replaced by a dummy, those scenes end up underwhelming too. The audience care more for the actor than the character and, at least in this case, that’s not a good thing. Where Tunley does do well is his design of the production. That opening sequence shows that he has the ability to do something more adventurous, even if he doesn’t sustain it here. Sean Crowley’s naturalistic and secret door-laden set is well-made, while Robin Bainbridge’s lighting prowess is used sparingly.
The negatives outweigh the positives though. As good as the performances are, and as well-designed as the piece is, it doesn’t shake off the lack of imagination shown by Tunley or the outdatedness of Orton’s script. It’s important to note that a good chunk of the audience at this particular performance of Loot had a great time, but I don’t think that justifies it. BlackRAT are capable of making top quality theatre, they’ve done it before and they will again. Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of those times.