Sunday, 20 August 2017

Loot - Park Theatre, London

Joe Orton was a writer who dared to speak the unspeakable. He pushed the boundaries of common taste and decency. He tackled subjects others would find repulsive and flaunted the hard facts of everyday life to the masses; facts that people would prefer to sweep under the carpet. If mankind possessed any basic human values, they were thrown away; all classes were corruptible. Moralistic attitudes were daydreams. People in real life don’t have morals; they just try to persuade themselves that they do. They flagrantly despatch messages from their soap boxes of what is right and what is wrong, how we should live a good clean holy life and then they renege on their ramblings with their actions.

 Actions speak louder than words. You may scoff at the above, but the character Fay in Loot shows this with great aplomb. She sits with her rosary in hand, proclamations coming thick and fast about how the family should behave with respect in front of the dead, yet it becomes clear she has abused her capacity as nurse to the dying to ensure that she, not family, will benefit under the Will of the dead. But it is not just Fay who is a dubious character, all parties are corruptible on one level or another, and they don’t care who they cast to the lions.

Life’s a bitch and then you die.

Orton's characters depict life as what it really is, a vicious but strangely funny world. People spend their days doing what they need to do to survive; if they are not cheating death, they are dealing with it, and in the case of Loot, with laughter at the core.

Two of Orton’s best known plays are Loot and What the Butler Saw. In both of these he showed his mastery of the art of black comedy. His tongue in cheek approach allowed him to show in all seriousness the disintegration of society amongst us. 

"In a world run by fools, the writer can only chronicle the doings of fools or their victims. And because the world is a cruel and heartless place, he will be accused of not taking his subject seriously...But laughter is a serious business, and comedy a weapon more dangerous than tragedy. Which is why tyrants treat it with caution. The actual material of tragedy is equally viable in comedy - unless you happen to be writing in English, when the question of taste occurs. The English are the most tasteless nation on earth, which is why they set such store by it." 

Joe Orton

Orton was born in Leicester 1st January 1933, the first of four children in an ordinary working class family. He was semi-illiterate, missing a lot of school due to his asthma, but he had a passion for reading and amateur dramatics. Following speech lessons to remove his lisp, he was accepted at RADA, where he met his future friend and lover Kenneth Halliwell.

Halliwell was the opposite of Orton. He had a promising academic career ahead of him, but he preferred to pursue the lure of the theatre. Neither did particularly well at RADA but Halliwell had a longing to become a writer, and he wanted Orton to become a writer too. They lived an isolated life together in a bedsit in Islington, decorated with illustrations they had stolen from library books. They were unsuccessful as writers, and sought their revenge by doctoring library books that they thought were rubbish. They cut captions from photographs and posted them against other pictures. They glued a picture of a Gorilla's head on the cover of Collins Book of Roses, and then they returned the books to the library. These actions caused both parties to be charged with malicious damage; both receiving jail sentences for their misdemeanours. (The writer Jake Arnott created a Radio 3 drama, The Visa Affair, starring Russell Tovey and Tom Burke, based on their experiences. )

The emergence of Mr Sloan.

Prison changed both parties. Halliwell became more withdrawn whereas Orton took the opportunity to use his new understanding of the society that he lived in to write his plays. He saw what lay under the superficial nature of society. Buoyed on by the success of his BBC radio drama Ruffian on the Stair, he wrote his first full length play, Entertaining Mr Sloan. It depicted the 60's as a ruthless time, where nothing stood in the pursuit of personal happiness, and how drugs and music had impacted on society.

Sir Terence Rattigan proclaimed that Entertaining Mr Sloan was the best "first" play he had seen in years, he praised the use of language and the construction of the play, but it was not a sentiment shared by everyone and so when Sloan transferred to the West End, the press joined forces with public condemnation of the play stating it was "dirty highbrow." Orton, himself helped to encourage further outbursts by posing under the pseudonym Edna Welthorpe to write to the Daily Telegraph letters page, "I myself was nauseated by this endless parade of mental and physical perversion."

Orton knew the limitations of his first play and started working on Loot – a play which would take its revenge on the Catholic Church, British law and enforcement and how money is at the root of all evil. 

Two young friends, Harold and Dennis, take advantage of their current situation (one works in an undertakers and there is a bank next door) to rob a bank. They burrow between the undertakers and the bank, storing rubble in the empty coffins, and then realise they need to find somewhere to stash the contents of the robbery. Harold’s mother has died, and as the law is beginning to bear down on the two thieves, they decide the occupied coffin is the best place to safely store their ill-gotten gains. Add to the mix a gold digging nurse, a grieving widower and a psychopathic policeman; you have the contents of a hilarious farce awaiting you.

Loot was a completely new entity for the British Stage. It mixed together the elements of a classic farce with dubious morals, designed to both shock and delight in equal measure. Despite it having an all-star cast (Kenneth Williams, Geraldine McEwan, Ian McShane and Duncan Macrae) the director found it hard to mix the brutal nature of the text with the open levity of the situation. Orton was asked to re-write the text a number of times, so the performers never knew from one day to the next what were expected from them. The play was a complete flop and closed within a month. 

“Loot is a serious play. Unless Loot is directed and acted perfectly seriously the play will fail.”

Joe Orton’s words were finally taken on-board and Loot re-opened on the 27th September 1966 and become an overwhelming success. It won the Evening Standard award and Play and Players Award for the best play of the year, despite the success, Orton was still not happy. “Ideally it should be nearer The Homecoming rather than I Love Lucy.” He insisted that the prime aim of Loot was NOT to make the audience laugh. It was a play about police corruption, the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church and how to deal with human remains. “If you’re absolutely practical – and I hope I am – a coffin is a box. One calls it a coffin and once you’ve called it a coffin it immediately now has all sorts of associations.”

50 years after the brutal murder of Joe Orton by his lover Kenneth Halliwell, Loot has returned to the Park Theatre stage back in its original format. (The Lord Chamberlain had put a number of restrictions on the play before it could be performed on its 1966 West End debut, mainly due to its immorality!) The play starts with a radio playing in the background. Sadly, because of the noise of the audience chattering away, I missed a lot of it, but I caught snatches of a Joe Orton interview, and what sounded like Mary Whitehouse’s condemnation of society!

It was a joy to watch what Joe Orton had actually written, not a sterilised version of his thoughts and ideas of the time. It was brave of director Michael Fentiman to take the risk, but I think the risk has worked. Homosexuality was illegal when Orton wrote Loot, but times have changed and audiences are not as easily shocked as they once were. It’s difficult to understand that phrases such as “the wreaths are blown to buggery” were removed for the sensitive nature of 60’s audiences, when we read conflicting reports of how “open-minded” the sixties were!

Fentiman’s direction takes on board Orton’s desire for the play to be acted seriously. Sinead Matthews, as the gold digging nurse Fay, has some of the best lines in the entire script, but she says them with such solemnity that you can’t help but laugh out loud at her open hypocrisy.

Fay: She (his dead wife) had a deceitful nature. That much is clear. We mustn’t let it happen again. I’ll sort out some well-meaning young woman. Bring her here. Introduce you. I can visualise her – medium height, slim, fair hair. A regular visitor to some place of worship. And an ex-member of the League of Mary.

McLeavy: Someone like yourself?

Fay: Exactly. Realise your potential. Marry at once.

This is the success of a great writer. The laughter comes from what he has written, not slapstick physical comedy, or played for laughs on stage which would have Joe Orton turning in his grave.

 That said, there is a lot of physical humour when it comes to the corpse. The Lord Chamberlain banned the use of an actor, here, at The Park Theatre, the role was played by Anah Ruddin who should be given great credit for how well she played her part. Her body was thrown about the stage like a ragdoll, and jammed upside down in the wardrobe. What she went through has to be seen to be believed, and she certainly deserved the extra applause she received when she rose from the dead to take her curtain call!

Sam Frenchum and Calvin Demba embrace the ludicrous situation they have dropped themselves in as the would be crooks Harold (Hal) and Dennis. They have an endearing charm that you laugh along with, but there is a serious message hidden within, you can’t trust anyone when money is involved. This brings me to the na├»ve, grieving McLeavy. Ian Redford is perfectly believable as the widower, being torn and manipulated by all those around him, how his early words come back to bite him (re the police.)“They’re a fine body of men. Doing their jobs under impossible circumstances.”

If I did have one criticism to levy it would be Christopher Fulford’s take on the corrupt Truscott. He was a little too “shouty,” more of a caricature than a character. This stood out particularly because everyone else played their roles down, which ironically led to the amount of laughter the play received. That said, I think Orton would be pleased with this quick-witted production. If you’re going to celebrate the 50th anniversary of someone’s bludgeoning to death, then a good dose of macabre laughter is the greatest form of medicine!

Loot runs at The Park Theatre London until 24th September, and then it transfers to The Watermill Theatre, nr Newbury, 28th September to 21st October 2017.

Playtext available from Methuan Drama

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion (V&A, London)

Cristobal Balenciaga (1895-1972) was a Spanish Basque fashion designer and the founder of the Balenciaga fashion house. He was one of the most innovative designers of the twentieth century, and his use of fabric and his skills as a master tailor ensured that when he died people mourned “The King is Dead.” He was an inventive pioneer of fashion, transforming the female silhouette with highly sculptural designs, and removing nipped in waistlines with his tunic dresses and kimono style coats.

This exhibition at the V&A explores his work, and the influences he has on other designers such as Issy Miyake, Iris Van Herpen and Paco Rabanne. Walking around this exhibition, it is hard to imagine women of the 1950’s and 60’s wearing such apparel, such was his futuristic vision. Single seamed coats, dresses which were tied to the legs to add additional volume to an already ballooning hemline, and exquisite embroidery were the hallmarks of Balenciaga’s fame. On walking into the exhibition, you are treated to a bright green cape and dress ensemble which looks like a stack of pompoms. These were the clothes of the adventurous woman, a woman confident in her own skin.

Short films around the exhibition show the skills required for the hand embroidery that adorn his dresses, and show the extent of his attention to pattern design and how skilled he was in sculpting garments. He was more of an architect than a designer, taking new fabrics and seeing how he could manipulate them into shapes to celebrate the female form in an unconventional manner.

His haute couture gowns have been x-rayed by the V&A, unearthing secrets about how his “fluid” designs were actually moulded on stiff corsets, and how his simple designs were really very complex. Videos from Balenciaga’s salon in the 1950's give a rare insight into another world, where glamorous models twirl and show off their gowns, holding numbered cards so clients know what they need to order!

It is a wonderful collection and his work lives on as he continues to influence designers worldwide. Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is on at the V&A London until 18th February 2018. Advance booking is advisable; tickets cost £12 although there are concessions available.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Strike – The Cuckoo’s Calling (Episode One)

BBC1’s new detective drama, Strike, premiered at the BFI on London’s Southbank on Thursday night. There was a screening of the first episode, followed by a Q&A session with the stars of the show, Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger, as well as executive producer Ruth Kenley-Letts, director Michael Keillor and writer Ben Richards.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first of three detective novels featuring Cormoran Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott, written by J K Rowling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Fans of this detective duo have eagerly being waiting to see their heroes brought to life on screen and so I was interested to see their reactions on Thursday night. Twitter feeds and social media had been rife with many querying whether Tom Burke could take on the enormity of the role of Strike. In the book Strike is 6’2, overweight, not particularly attractive, and with “pube-like” hair. That is NOT a description of Tom! It is difficult for me to be objective on this point. I didn’t read the books until after I had been told that this was going to be Tom’s next role. I immediately visualised him as Strike – although I did pray the producers would see sense and not give him a Kevin Keegan perm. (Tom did say in the Q&A he had offered to have a perm, thank goodness that offer was turned down!)

Tom Burke is a phenomenally talented actor. If you watch the depth of his back catalogue you’ll see that he’s taken on an enormous variety of characters, and that he has the calibre to make every role his own. If you want someone kind hearted, thoughtful and gentle there is Davy in Third Star; for a hardened football thug, there is Bullet in The Hooligan Factory; and so it was no surprise to me that he could become the Cornish giant that is Cormoran Strike. Tom’s acting skills, a bit of padding and some clever camera work have brought this screen character to life.

Strike is a war veteran turned private detective who has been wounded both physically, losing part of his leg in Afghanistan, and psychologically. He lives and operates out of his tiny office in London’s Denmark Street and draws on his previous experience as an SIB Investigator to solve complex cases which have eluded the police. This gives scope for a dark detective series, but this adaptation has taken a fresh approach to the detective genre rather than falling into the popular Nordic Noir trap. The filming is very real, with a lot taking place on location, including beautiful wide angle shots of Strike roaming the busy streets of London. Cinematically, Bronte Film and TV and the BBC have produced some stunning visuals, and with a powerful music score in addition, they have generated a haunting and authentic feel to the show. 

Diehard fans need to approach the series as an adaptation of the books and expect some changes to the original novels. Locations have altered, some main characters have been lost, and scenes have been rewritten to condense and sharpen the storyline, but fear not, the show still retains the soul of the original books. Most of this soul comes from Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger, who are perfectly cast as the two main characters, Strike and Robin. Their on screen partnership is so believable it has you entranced from the very beginning and Ben Richards has created a script with a subtle humour that you don’t get in the books; this gives an added dimension and warmth to both Strike and Robin’s characters. My favourite moments from the preview were Strike’s expression upon watching an American rap star, and the tricky problem of going to the toilet the minute you have just removed your prosthetic leg (which in addition he talks to!)

Holliday Grainger has captured both the look and attitude of Robin from her first moments on screen. Robin is an office temp, and her first moments heading to Strike’s office are action packed to say the least. Her gung-ho attitude to the job in hand is met with admiration by Strike, and to the audience in general. There is an honesty about Robin in the books and her confusion, ethics and desire to do well for her new boss is captured so expressively by Holliday that there is no need for words. 

The Cuckoo’s Calling revolves around the death of a model, Lula Landry. The opening sequences show her posing for paparazzi shots at a party, and making her way home as swirls of snowflakes flutter around her. As her body lies in the snow below her luxury penthouse apartment, the question is posed, did she commit suicide or was she murdered? But who gets changed before they kill themselves ponders Robin? This leaves the door open for the secrets of Lula’s family to open up and for those who haven’t read the books to wonder whodunnit? 

As a Tom Burke fan, I’m always hoping that his work will be well received; therefore it was joy to sit next to a gentleman who wasn’t a fan, and to hear him laughing loudly throughout the show. He and I collectively let out a sigh of disappointment that the final credits had come far too soon. It didn’t feel like we had sat through an hour long episode.  At the Q&A session, Ruth Kenley-Letts joked that it wouldn’t be good for her career if the show was a turkey. I believe she doesn’t need to worry; the BBC has a new hit on their hands, this is a memorable detective duo that will impress fans and non-fans of the books alike.

 Strike – The Cuckoo’s Calling will air on BBC1, Sunday 27th August at 9pm. The second episode will be shown on Bank Holiday Monday, 28th August. The third and final episode will be shown Sunday 3rd September. The Silkworm is scheduled for Sunday 10th and 17th September, whilst the third novel – A Career of Evil will be shown in the New Year.