Review: Killer Joe (Trafalgar Studios)

Orlando Bloom stars in Simon Evans’ revival production of ”Killer Joe” in London

Orlando Bloom as Killer Joe Cooper
Orlando Bloom as Killer Joe Cooper
© Marc Brenner

The sight of the handsome Orlando Bloom in a girlie pink dressing gown, not to mention the fleeting glimpse of his finely-honed buttocks, explains the queues quietly forming for this revival of Tracy Lett's 1993 drama.
And you can see exactly why Bloom, wanting to make his return to the stage after a glamorous film career encompassing heroically dashing leading roles in The Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings and Troy, might chose this piece as his vehicle. It puts him centre-stage as Killer Joe Cooper, a mysterious policeman-cum -killer hired by a trailer trash family to kill their mother in the hope that her life insurance will solve their financial woes. It also casts him in an unfamiliar light.

It is a queasily peculiar work, featuring at its heart an unsettling scene of sexual predation. Waiving his fee for the assassination, Joe asks instead for a retainer, in the shape of 20 year-old Dottie (Sophie Cookson), the innocent daughter of the house, brain damaged by her soon-to-be dead alcoholic mother. At the end of the first act, Joe takes his payment, leaving her undressed and shivering at the back of the stage, before calling her forward to hold and caress him.

It makes the skin creep. As it should. I remember loving this play when I first saw it in New York 20 years ago; but times change, or perhaps I have. Now I find the blank amorality of this so-called seduction profoundly difficult to take. Which is as Letts intended.The point he is making in this blackly comic study of family dysfunction is that exploitation and damage begin very close to home. In an early encounter, Joe tells Dottie the story of a man who poured lighter fluid on his genitals to punish his girlfriend; the words domestic and disturbance, he drawls, are always the ones that mean a police officer is likely to get hurt. Letts went on to examine such themes with greater sophistication in his Pulitzer-winning August: Osage County. Killer Joe feels slighter in comparison.

My feeling is that Simon Evans' production doesn't help much. Grace Smart's set perfectly creates the run-down world of the trailer, where the TV is always blaring forth, the fictional lives of TV detectives Magnum and Cannon rival the "real" shenanigans unfolding among the impoverished Texas lowlifes in front of us. But Evans' direction doesn't so much harness the play's shifting moods as swing wildly between them. He's chosen to emphasise the play's farcical elements by switching from heightened naturalism into clearly signalled, highly choreographed slapstick. I don't think that works.

But there is no denying the play's power to provoke and to hold the audience in a fierce grip. In the second half, when the tone darkens, and Joe's presence becomes more overtly threatening, Bloom comes into his own. The very delicacy of his appearance makes his behaviour all the more chilling. His performance is slow and considered; I found it a little self-conscious, but his charisma undoubtedly gathers force. By the close, he holds the stage, binding the action.

He's much helped by Cookson, lovely as Dottie, bringing a gentle charm as well as a convincing wariness to their developing relationship. The other performances are more uneven. Adam Gillen does a mad turn as the hapless brother that seems to have wandered in from another play and Steffan Rhodri doesn't make much impact as the impotent dad. But Neve McIntosh adds insight and sass to her short scenes as Sharla, the stepmother determined to survive and make as much of her life as she can.

Fiercely disturbing, Killer Joe is a play that asks more questions than it answers, but it never loses its power to hold your attention.