HULL Truck has never staged a Joe Orton play until now, a surprising revelation given this theatre’s long, strong association with comedy.
Artistic director Gareth Tudor Price has picked the Leicester iconoclast’s “most popular comedy”, the taboo-breaking Loot, from 1965, with its provocative swipes at religious and sexual hypocrisy and corrupt law enforcement and an irreverent attitude to death.
Once, Loot was the shock of the new wrapped inside a classic English farce structure – the Lord Chamberlain demanded that the play’s one “f” word should be replaced by “bleeding” – and it remains a very dark comedy but without the staying power of the works of Beckett or Pinter.
The trouble with shock is that it wears off, turning The Sex Pistols and Malcolm McLaren, for example, from anarchists into pantomime ex-punks. Orton’s play does not take such a nostalgic softening spiral but nevertheless the passing of time has reduced its bite.
Tudor Price and designer Richard Foxton pump up the Sixties setting, the black comedy and funereal weeds thrown against the rocks of floral wallpaper and psychedelic rugs in a riot of colour to match the riotous farce, wherein Mrs McLeavy’s coffin is in the front room awaiting that day’s funeral service.
Except that, unbeknown to the law-abiding Mr McLeavy (Gary Lilburn), her body is locked in a cupboard, replaced in the coffin by the loot that truculent, petty-thieving son Hal (Tom Hudson) and his young lover, undertaker’s assistant Dennis (Karl Dobby), need to hide after a bank robbery. Meanwhile, Nurse Fay (Linzi Matthews, one of several Hull Truck debutants in this show) has her shameless eye on making the slumped Mr McLeavy her husband number eight.
No longer outrageous, Orton’s parody of a stock detective thriller is still ripe with appalling behaviour – a comedy of ill manners – and has a fixation with money that chimes with today, while its depiction of human frailty is timeless. Orton’s style is to embellish farce with theatre-of-the-absurd exaggeration, the comedy in part emerging from the cast playing the heightened language energetically but straight, while he mocks institutions and moral turpitude.
It doesn’t fizz, however, until Chris Connel really grabs the play by the proverbials on his triumphant return to Hull Truck as Truscott, the alarming arm of the law thinly disguised as a Metropolitan Water Board official. An inspector bawls in his hands, his performance the essence of crazed comedy, with a licence to roam over the top where others are broad without being bold. Nevertheless, the new faces are welcome, freshening up the Hull Truck ranks to match the theatre’s new surroundings.