Back in the Sixties, gay, working-class Joe Orton’s exuberant contempt for the politeness of the theater establishment made him the darling of the daring set — and vice versa. But the expanding artistic license on stages since the playwright’s death has made revivals of his once iconoclastic work look, at best, quirky and, at worst, quaint. Mercifully, Nick Bagnall’s sharp production of “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” reminds audiences of the marvelously guilty comic pleasures provided by Orton’s gleeful misanthropy.
“This,” cries Imelda Staunton’s insanely house-proud Kath, throwing the door wide open, “is my lounge.” By pausing so dramatically in the middle of the line, and allowing audiences to take in the delicious ghastliness of Peter McKintosh’s downtrodden set, Staunton gets not one but two laughs on the play’s opening sentence. That attention to detail is the production’s hallmark.
A vision in knee-length baby blue, bright-eyed Staunton seesaws between giddy girlishness and manipulative zeal as Kath, the landlady who insists cute-but-dangerous stranger Mr. Sloane (Mathew Horne) call her “mamma” even while seducing him on the rug. What Kath fails to realize is that she’s not the only one with a hidden agenda. Sloane is using her house as a hideout as the dust settles on a murder.
His culpability is swiftly sniffed out by Kath’s father, Kemp (Richard Bremmer), who is initially too enfeebled to act upon his suspicions. Tottering knock-kneed around the living-room with his walking stick, bent-double with elbows at savage right-angles to his shambling frame, Bremmer’s birdlike performance is superbly hollowed-out, as if eaten away from the inside. But it’s not all pathos. He’s indelibly funny making a theatrical meal out of attempting (and failing) to toast a crumpet in front of a dismal two-bar electric fire.
The family from hell is ideally completed by Simon Paisley Day, shimmering with fury as Kath’s staunch disciplinarian brother Ed.
With his ramrod-straight, gaunt physique not so much encased in as incarcerated by a pinstripe suit, Ed is the image of towering self-repression. Hair slicked back and holding himself almost impossibly erect at all times, his entire body is led by his mustached upper lip, which has a life of its own, rocketing south in disapproval or quivering in guilt-ridden joy at the prospect of Sloane in leather chauffeur’s outfit. His sudden involuntary laughs of pleasure, little nasal whinnies, are both hilarious and creepy.
That perfect balancing of the preposterous and the downright sinister is not just quintessentially Ortonesque, it’s magnetic. Day’s presence even galvanizes Horne who, as yet, is a little too light-textured as Sloane.
Malicious selfishness underpins Sloane’s behaviour. But in the opening scene, Horne makes Sloane appear a total innocent, presumably on the grounds that his character is a very good liar. But by removing glimpses of Sloane’s arrant manipulation, a layer of everyone’s delusion is lost. It also makes Sloane’s switch to violence as the plot noose tightens feel disjointed and not fully earned.
Ed accuses Kath of living in a world of her own, something he too is largely guilty of. Yet his savaging of her results from his cruel ability to weigh her in the balance of the real world in which she is found wanting in every sense. That Staunton’s subsequent breakdown is so touching is testament to the richness of both their performances.
Only Kemp and Sloane see the bigger picture, but that only affords one of them the opportunity to kill the other. The resulting final confrontations — kept at a suitably dramatic pitch by Bagnall — point to a depressingly amoral conclusion. It’s Orton’s still-potent triumph that these viciously selfish characters are so, well, entertaining.