Loot at the Park Theatre review ****

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Loot

Park Theatre, 14th September 2017

There has been a lot of progress in the last 50 years in this country. Good people are more tolerant and accepting of the identity of others (though there are still plenty of bigoted d*ckheads to be found polluting the discourse), The fairy tales of religions are losing their grip on peoples’ thoughts, (though some still get fired up by this tosh and just will not leave us unbelievers alone). The police will always have unconscionable biases and corruptions but great strides have been made in remedying institutional failings.

Oh and the idea of shoving a dead body around a set for comedic effect in the theatre is unlikely to outrage any but the most conservative of Mail readers. All this means that the dark satire of Joe Orton’s famous play Loot is now muted, and the outrage which greeted its first performances seems quaint to this observer. BUT it is still, when performed well, a very funny, subversive play and its targets are still worth taking aim at. Taking the piss intelligently out of the institutions which create the superstructure is still a vital artistic imperative. And an antidote to all those digital crusaders who get wound up for nanoseconds about ephemera.

And be assured this production, directed by Michael Fentiman, at the Park is very good indeed, and it would be a shame if the remaining sold out performances are the last we see of it. The set and costumes from Gabriella Slade are exemplary – the action cleverly all takes place in an all-black funeral parlour with a hefty dose of religious iconography. The costumes put us slap bang in the middle of the 1960s, not the flower power generation but the more mundane, tired, conservative world which was the reality. The production kicks off with a speech from that tiresome crone Mary Whitehouse. And we have an actor as corpse rather than a dummy which adds a new and funny dimension.

The excellent cast take a great delight in playing up the characters faults and rapidly firing off the lines in the faux sincere way that they require (and largely avoiding the Carry On-esque trap that bedevils amateur interpretations). Everyone here is on the take in some way. Following a “bank job” lovers Dennis (Calvin Demba) and Hal (Sam Frenchum) need somewhere to store the loot. Hal’s Mum has just passed away but her murderous nurse Fay (Sinead Matthews) has designs on his Dad, McCleary (Ian Redford), or, more exactly, his money. Truscott (Christopher Fulford) is the copper investigating the bank robbery but poses as an inspector from the Water Board to grill the others. Cue the acid humour and farcical form and a conclusion where everyone gains financially though loses morally, not that they give a sh*t.

Sam Frenchum show’s up Hal’s jealously in the face of Dennis’s bisexuality and avarice. This is where the restoration of the cuts demanded by the Lord Chamberlain (yes kids we had a bloke in a wig telling us what we could watch until the 1960s) is most welcome, sharpening the ambivalent relationship between the two lads. Shades of Orton and Halliwell’s own relationship? Ian Redford’s McLeary feigns, but cannot entirely claim, innocence. Sinead Matthews is outstanding as the hypocritical Irish nurse and her comic timing is flawless. And Christopher Fulford as Truscott defines splenetic as our bent copper whose twisting of judicial logic ends up with, for example, the priceless concept of Christ’s crucifixion as a put up job. Oh and Anah Ruddin as Mrs McLeavy almost steals the show despite not uttering a word.

So no longer a shocking black satire: more a clever parody with astute commentary on “that old whore society” as Orton observed.  I am guessing it helps if you have a feel for the period but the stereotypes and absurdities are recognisable and the laughs abundant. Like Ben Johnson but without the need for a degree in Ben Johnson studies to understand it. If the production pops up somewhere else (beyond Newbury where it is off to next) take a look. It is perfectly possible to make a sh*tshow of Loot which entirely misses the points in the pursuit of forced laughs and overplayed farce. Indeed, by all accounts, the first productions failed until Orton rewrote and licked it into shape and the 1970 film version is weak.

If you are interested get along to the Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain (Queer British Art at Tate Britain review ***). Not a treasure trove of great art but a fascinating journey through gay history in Britain in the century or so proceeding the Sexual Offences Act 1967 which partially decriminalised homosexuality. Orton’s play premiered a couple of years before the Act. The exhibition shows some of the library books that Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell “defaced” and for which they were unbelievably imprisoned for 6 months.

 

Queer British Art at Tate Britain review ***

Bathing 1911 by Duncan Grant 1885-1978

Queer British Art 1861-1967

Tate Britain, 18th August 2017

I learnt a lot from this exhibition. A damming reflection of my ignorance of gay history in Britain over the period under review. However I am afraid I didn’t really see much in the way of compelling art or artists which I had not already encountered. No matter. Sometimes it is good just to learn and with a muppet like me sometimes all that is required to achieve that aim are a few pictures and some well chosen words.

Now in some ways the reason why the history lesson was of such interest was precisely because curator Clare Barlow mixed up work by gay artists, with portraits and mementoes of courageous heroes of gay history, as well as art which depicts ostensibly gay themes, whether acknowledged or moreorless concealed. For someone with no prior insight the shifting content did not detract from the edification. For those more versed in the art itself or gay social history this jumbling up may prove less satisfying. It did also mean there is a lot of rippling torso on show to draw the eye from the absorbing captions.

The first room kicks off with a Pre-Raphaelite extravaganza, reminding me of how much I detest this art, but also how overtly camp it is even as it hides, badly, behind its classical allusion. Sorry if you feel differently. But it does neatly emphasise the enduring link back to the High Renaissance and in turn to ancient Greece. It seems some will never tire of the classical nude. Room 2 explores how gay identity filtered through into public and “scientific” discourse through the late C19 and early C20. Room 3, largely through some fine photographs, explores how the notion of the “theatrical” acted as a conduit for queer expression to a sometimes knowing audience. As with Room 2 no real art of any great consequence (a sign of the artistic times) but bags of insight for me. In Room 4 we get a some recognisable pictures, but largely from the Bloomsbury Group and their acolytes. Now I know these toffs are terribly important in the development of British Art in the C20 and they are an endlessly fascinating bunch of characters, but this is hardly unexplored territory, and Vanessa Bell excepted, (and obviously Keynes in his chosen field), their output isn’t up to much – witness the Duncan Grant contribution above. (The SO will kill me if she reads this given the implied dissing ofVirginia Woolf). Room 5 finally serves up some fine pictures (to my eyes) for example the Laura Knight self portrait (though the thematic link here is tenuous) and explores notable female same sex relationships. Room 6 was the most interesting to me in terms of painters with works from diverse names such as Edward Burra (a real highlight), John Craxton. John Minton and Keith Vaughan all offering new viewing opportunities. Great stuff. Back to the history lesson in Room 7 showing the dichotomy between public and private gay lives in the 1950s and 1960s before the first step to decriminalisation in 1967 (the exhibition timeline having begun with the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861). Room 8 loads up Hockney and Bacon, though there might have been more of their genius .

So I would say carve out some time to get along to the exhibition (it ends on October 1st) ideally with a chum or two (this is not a show for private contemplation) to soak up some defiant stories of fearless people sticking it to the fearful. Just don’t expect too many draw-dropping pictures.