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Review: Loot (Park Theatre)

Joe Orton's death-obsessed farce is given a riotous outing by Michael Fentiman

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Joe Orton's dark farce shocked some audiences when it opened over 50 years ago. The mix of messing around with the dead – a corpse gets heaved and hurled around the stage, its clothes taken off and its false teeth taken out – and straight-up bank-job yarn made for hilarious, if, for the '60s crowd, occasionally uncomfortable viewing. But that was absolutely Orton's way and though people today won't find it shocking – not really – it does still stand up as one of the funniest, well-written plays of all.

Set in the McLeavy's front room, Loot takes place on the day of Mrs McLeavy's funeral. Her body lies in a sombre black casket in the middle of the space and around her all manner of mischief plays out. Nurse Fay has been tending to Mrs McLeavy in her final weeks, and looking after Mr McLeavy at the same time, while son Hal has been hanging about town with his friend Dennis. But Fay – a seemingly devout catholic – is intent on getting McLeavy to propose to her, ahead of his late wife's interment. And Hal and Dennis, having just robbed a bank, have the cops on their tails and need somewhere to stash the cash. Where? The most (un)obvious place in the room of course: the coffin. Out comes the corpse, in goes the money and what follows is a slapstick, madcap, completely bonkers attempt to prevent psychotic detective Truscott from finding out.

Orton has a lot to say about religion, our obsession with death and our unbalanced emphasis on what's left behind. The pomp, circumstance and respect for the dead is thrown clean out the window in favour of the bundles of notes that Hal and Dennis have plundered. It's only Mr McLeavy (and his dead wife, of course) who is even close to an innocent party in all this and both get right royally done over.

But what really comes out in this production of Loot – which is the first time the version without the Lord Chamberlain's cuts has been shown – is just how much of an attack on the police this is. It is scathing and coruscating, betraying what must have been Orton's own belief (given his famously unfair treatment at the hands of the justice system) that the force were a bunch of corrupt idiots, with nothing but hate and brute force on their side. Truscott, performed with a suitable pent-up rage by Christopher Fulford, is a vicious imbecile whose seemingly hardcore morals are ultimately easily compromised: he lets all his integrity evaporate at the prospect of a juicy bribe.

That said, Loot never gets carried away and the genius lines really shine through here, many of which Sinead Matthews' absolutely brilliant Fay gets. "A papal dispensation is needed to dust his room," she says of wayward son Hal as she rings her hands. Her attempts at getting what she wants are hilariously bold: "You've been a widower for three days, have you thought about a second marriage?" Matthews is wonderfully deadpan, underplaying truth, lies and everything else in a performance which initially keeps us guessing. The scene where she undresses Mrs McLeavy is exceptionally funny and probably one of the only scenes which really tests a boundary today.

Michael Fentiman's production, led by the very strong ensemble cast, is tight and clear. The pace doesn't let up and the use of a real body in place of a dummy for the corpse (admirably played by Anah Ruddin) is an excellent decision: it absolutely heightens the comedy.

Loot is an example of a playwright working at his best. It's a farcical romp, still absolutely relevant today, which makes more than one hard-hitting point. This robust, riotous outing is much-welcome.   

Loot runs at the Park Theatre until 24 September and then transfers to the Watermill Theatre from 28 September to 21 October.