Nick Bagnall's revival of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane opened at Trafalgar Studios 1 on Friday (30 January 2009, previews from 22 January), starring Mathew Horne – best known as Gavin in BBC sitcom Gavin and Stacey - in the title role.
Orton’s “breakthrough” play, Entertaining Mr Sloane is considered the most autobiographical in his short career (Orton was bludgeoned to death by his former lover Kenneth Halliwell in 1967). It centres on the sexual tug-of-war between siblings Kath and Ed for the affections of handsome young lodger Sloane, and was last seen in the West End at the Arts Theatre in 2001.
Alongside Horne, the new production also features Imelda Staunton (Kath), Simon Paisley Day (Ed) and Richard Bremmer (Dada). Its designed by Peter McKintosh, with Kathy Burke acting as artistic associate.
Although the play may have lost some of its shock value over the years, critics nevertheless welcomed Bagnall's “hilarious” revival of Orton's “historic black comedy”. In the title role, Mathew Horne divided opinion between those who felt he lacked experience and requisite sex appeal, and those who felt the young comic actor, in the words of Michael Billington, “keeps his end up”. Imelda Staunton stole most of the plaudits as the nymphomaniac Kath, managing to be “somehow both grotesque … and genuinely endearing”. There was high praise too for Richard Bremmer's “suitably decrepit” Dada and Simon Paisley Day's “beautifully played” Ed.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - Orton’s subversive comedy was always one of cheek and attrition, and Nick Bagnall’s revival, though hampered by the edgy discomfort of Mathew Horne as Mr Sloane, whose lack of stage experience is all too evident, makes merry with period detail while playing the grotesquery of the characters for real … Richard Bremmer plays the old Dada very decrepit indeed, with some slightly misfired opening night business with the toasting fork before he stabs Sloane. But Kath’s flirtation once Sloane’s trousers are removed is flagrantly done, and there are no punches pulled by Horne and Paisley Day in their misogynist dialogue and the brutal, brittle language is as riveting as ever.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “Although Horne, in the spirit of Orton's dialogue, keeps his end up, the big surprise is Nick Bagnall's production: I've never before seen a version of this play that pushed its comedy and violence to such limits, or that spelt out so clearly its affinity with the work of Harold Pinter … The real joy of this production lies in the performances of the brother and sister. Imelda Staunton is a matchless Kath, bringing out, in equal measure, the character's voracity, pathos and cunning. There is something hilarious about Staunton's mock modesty as she squats next to Sloane on a sofa in flimsily transparent nightie ostensibly doing her knitting.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “Even director Nick Bagnall’s spectacular miscasting of Matthew Horne, who replaces Mr Sloane, the bisexual, opportunistic, muscle-boy of the playwright’s imagining, with a campish, dyed-hair, 30-year-old of no distinct personality, does not that greatly diminish the savage fun or originality of Orton’s historic black comedy … Kath and her gay brother, Ed, beautifully played by Simon Paisley Day as an impassive, moustachioed figure with a three‑piece suit and a one-track mind, turn four blind eyes to a criminal fact: Sloane has murdered their father, Richard Bremmer’s suitably decrepit Kemp, in the family living room — Peter McKintosh’s design makes the place the acme of hideousness.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “More than 40 years on, when most of the great outrages of the Sixties now seem merely tame or silly, Entertaining Mr Sloane retains its power to provoke and startle. It is a truly amoral piece, wild, witty and utterly heartless. In this cracking new production ... the comedy is also wonderfully, mercilessly funny … I've seen previous productions that seemed stale and laboured, but director Nick Bagnall delivers a show that combines pace with revealing comic detail, and there isn't a single weak performance. Staunton's Kath is somehow both grotesque (she treats Sloane like her own son, even during lovemaking) and genuinely endearing, while her sudden moments of acute distress make this cold comedy unexpectedly touching.”
Simon Edge in the Daily Express (two stars) - “It's bizarre that director Nick Bagnall has chosen to revive this brilliant first play as if it were naturalistic drama. Imelda Staunton plays Kath at face value: needy, lonely and repressed, as if she has just wandered off the set of Vera Drake. As an acting job, it's faultless. But inviting us to pity her, rather than see her as a monster, is to neuter the black comedy … Horne, with fidgety stage inexperience, looks about as sexual in his nerdy clothes and his naff highlights as a bowl of pot-pourri. His Sloane is nervy and anxious to please, and Ed's double-take when he sees him for the first time seems utterly misplaced. If this is animal magnetism, the animal in question is a dead sheep.”
- by Theo Bosanquet