It is not so much that Joe Orton’s Loot is still a shocking play, but that its audacity and verve still take you by surprise. Sean Holmes’s revival at the Tricycle may not yet be fall-over funny, but it has a brutal comic momentum that is won by actors rattling out the lines deadpan and without indulgence.
Mrs McLeavy’s coffin is open at the start, and her mummified corpse gradually becomes an animated property as it’s tossed from the cupboard to the floor and around the stage. The investigations into the robbery at the bank next to the undertakers’ are led by Truscott, a police inspector masquerading as a water board official (or is that vice versa?).
Mr McLeavy himself is attended by his wife’s nurse, Fay, who has her sights set on husband number eight, while McLeavy’s son, Hal, is the bank robber on the run along with his gay friend Dennis. The tightness of this plotting is a joy in itself, but no stage action is sacrificed to the cause of a good line, or a blasphemous assertion.
Doon Mackichan as Fay, for instance, can express the Catholic priest’s concern over Hal by passing on his worries that he is thieving from slot machines and deflowering the daughters of better men than himself. Is this a fact? Yes, says Matt Di Angelo’s baby-faced Hal, a character whose moral sensibility is completely unformed.
There are many ways of describing Loot: as a satire on our gullibility when faced with authority figures, as a stage thriller spoof, as a macabre farce. But the Holmes version rams home the send-up of Catholic piety, notably in the forelock-tugging pasty-faced performance of James Hayes as McLeavy, an instantly recognisable type of Irish churchgoer with a belief in the goodness of God whatever the evidence to the contrary.
And David Haig comes up with one of his best recent performances as Truscott, a man so befogged by his own spurious sense of self-importance that he cannot see the funny side of anything; his inability to do so is our cue for laughter, of course. Truscott is the man who tracked down the limbless girl killer. “Who would kill a limbless girl?” asks Hal. “She was the killer.” “How did she do it if she was limbless?”
This is the kind of dialogue that makes Orton unique in the British theatre. And Holmes underlines its vice-like grip in his final tableau where Hal and Dennis (Javone Prince) are squeezed intimately by their privates under the coffin by the triumphant nurse, as if to say “Gotcha!”