There’s a huge difference between comedy and black comedy that seems to have eluded the Lincoln Company in their production of Joe Ortons’s
The desire to play for laughs overwhelms this current production and it misses all the subtlety of performance the text demands
The play concerns two young thieves, Hal and Dennis, who have robbed the bank next to the Undertakers where Dennis works. Those same undertakers have just placed Hal's deceased mother in a coffin, in which she now reposes back in the McLeavy household where his father mourns. Her coffin becomes the hiding place for the money and, with the assistance of Nurse McMahon, her removed body is transported to multiple locations to avoid the prying eyes of Inspector Truscott.
Loot is a critical satire on the church, conventional attitudes towards death and the functioning of the police force. Premiered in 1965, at its most comic it can be seen as a dark farce, but it is not the sort of stuff that Brian Rix was playing at the Whitehall Theatre a few years earlier, where flippancy and freedom with the text was permissible.
Daniel Fish directed the play at Princeton for the McCarter Theatre’s 2002/3 season and made important observations about how it should be played. He stressed that “…the play itself is its own world, with its own rules, its own vocabulary, its own logic, its own morals or ‘immorals’ and those things are totally unique to Orton. There is a desire to play for the laugh and I think the actor has to really be as committed as he or she can possibly be to the reality of every moment.”
That desire to play for laughs overwhelms this current production and it misses all the subtlety of performance the text demands. The humour of black comedy comes from the characters taking their ludicrous situation seriously. For the most part there was nothing serious about anything taking place on stage. On the contrary we were presented with a caricature of an old man, asides to the audience which were never intended as such and cast giggling at their own lines. There is also nothing to be gained from having the corpse of Mrs McLeavy played by a man.
For students of theatre this a great opportunity to see how Orton should not be played. If you just want a few laughs and are into slapstick without the slaps and sticks then you might find it entertaining; otherwise, it can only be viewed as a lamentable disappointment and missed opportunity to perform a landmark play.