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review of loot…..

….by Joe Orton and directed by Stevie Hughes

Review by Patrick Neylan

BLT shouldn’t be putting on disgusting plays like this. It’s disgraceful and offensive. If I wasn’t supporting a friend in the cast, I would have left during the interval.

Not my words, but those of a stalwart member of BLT who has been a supporter of this theatre for much longer than I have. So – when there is an unwritten rule that reviews should massage the egos of directors, cast and crew while placing a positive spin on even the most mediocre productions – why quote an audience member whose disapproval was so vocal and impossible to ignore?

Because I can think of no better validation of the decision to stage this 50-year old satire.

Satire is a genre that dates faster than most. I recall a BLT production of Habeas Corpusnine years ago – directed, like Loot, by Stevie Hughes and written by Alan Bennett when he was still a relevant playwright rather than a full-time National Treasure. Those jokes about Harold Wilson and Ted Heath fell a bit flat for young ’uns like me who were born in the 60s. The line between ‘period’ and ‘dated’ is a fine one.

So for Joe Orton’s Lootto arouse such a strong, negative reaction thoroughly justifies putting it on the BLT stage, even if our offended member was upset for different reasons than a 1960s audience might have been. But as I used to say during my days as a magazine editor, if you never upset anyone then you’re not trying hard enough.

Audiences in 1965 were shocked at the suggestion of heartless, amoral youths and irredeemably bent coppers at a time when the closest cultural references for such characters were ‘Help’-era Beatles for the former and Z-Cars for the latter. It’s good to know that the gleeful deconstruction of those social myths is as funny and shocking now as it was then. The sexism and stereotyping, particularly of the Irish, is more problematical for a modern audience, but it fits with the attitudes of the time and contributes to the absurdity of the story.

Loottells the story of two young men, Dennis and Hal (Luke McGuire and Chris Nelson), who pull off a robbery and hide the proceeds in the coffin occupied by Hal’s recently deceased mother. Soon, a policeman called Truscott (Paul Ackroyd) comes a-snooping, uncovering not only the robbery but the shenanigans of the late Mrs McLeavy’s nurse Fay (Ami Williamson), who is a serial killer of old ladies and, as an antidote to the sexism perceived by our offended audience member, is by far the canniest character on the stage.

As Truscott seeks to uncover a series of crimes, the increasingly bewildered widower McCleavy (played by director Stevie Hughes) struggles to come to terms with the ambiguities of a society that doesn’t fit with the moral certainties of his Catholic upbringing. The absurdist horse-trading between the other characters plays itself out, leaving the miscreants significantly enriched at the end while the only innocent character, McCleavy, is arraigned on trumped-up charges. Orton hilariously overturns Wilde’s maxim “the good end happily and the bad unhappily; that’s what fiction means”. If there is a serious message in all this farce, it’s that naïve respect for tradition and deference to authority will be heavily and rightly punished.

So it’s a funny play, but did BLT do it justice? Resoundingly yes, in that any criticisms of mine could only be described as nit-picking. Having played Truscott myself, my vanity and insecurity naturally dictate that I must deplore Paul Ackroyd’s portrayal, and the audience’s gleeful enjoyment of his performance can only stem from not having seen my ground-breaking interpretation back in 2007. To give him grudging credit, he perfectly captured the bent and slightly dim plod who nonetheless has an uncanny ability to bend the rules to get a result in his own interest, with scant regard for the law and showing patronising contempt for his more principled subordinate Meadows (Ron Moger).

I usually warn against directors taking a part in their own plays because they can never see what the audience sees. I’ll stick to that opinion, but I understand Stevie Hughes was rather forced into the role. He showed no sign of missing anything as a director while playing McCleavy, whose bumbling, bewildered innocence was a perfect counterpoint to the tide of wickedness overwhelming his ordered world – which is pretty much how many people viewed the 1960s as a whole.

Ami Williamson’s nurse Fay was a model of corrupt righteousness, never for once dropping the attitude of someone whose good Catholic values are entirely consistent with a career of deception, robbery and murder. As does Truscott, she believes that breaking the law and dishonestly achieving personal enrichment are perfectly in keeping with moral standards and the greater good.

Thank heavens then for Dennis and Hal, whose greed is unsullied by any sense of purpose higher than getting rich by any means necessary. Both actors portrayed a pair of friends lacking in even the basics of moral scruple, and they developed a rapport with each other that injected the pace without which this play would have died on its feet.

Speaking of dying, I don’t know which of Pranita Bharghava, Pauline Armour, Jessica-Ann Jenner or Jaimi Shanahan was under the bandages as Mrs McCleavy on the night I came; suffice to say her performance was utterly dead.

So we were left with a production that lacked any moral compass, and was all the funnier for it. In an era when so many plays feel the need to impose their values on the audience, it was refreshing to leave the theatre thoroughly amused and utterly unimproved.