Loot review – Joe Orton's savage farce now even funnier and filthier

To mark the 50th anniversary of Joe Orton’s death, this revival of his most famous play restores the cuts originally insisted upon by the stage censor, the Lord Chamberlain. The result not only sharpens an already subversive text but yields a first-rate production by Michael Fentiman that reminds us of the serious intent behind Orton’s drollery. This, you might say, is dangerous farce.

The plot hinges on the use of a dead woman’s coffin by her amoral son Hal and his bank-robbing chum Dennis as a hiding-place for stolen loot. The censor previously demanded that “the corpse is inanimate and not played by an actress”, and the first shock comes from now seeing a live actor (the admirably selfless Anah Ruddin) being stashed upside down in a cupboard and eventually stripped stark naked.

It lends the action a disturbing necrophiliac zest complemented by the restoration of once banned lines, including one suggesting the crucified Christ was framed. We are also left in little doubt about the sexuality of the friendship between Hal and Dennis who finally fantasise about a threesome with the dead woman’s murderous nurse.

Manic gleam … Christopher Fulford as Inspector Truscott, with Demba as Dennis. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

But Fentiman’s production constantly reminds us that Orton’s shock tactics are a way of alerting us to the hypocrisy of a society in which greed, gain and lust are masked by religious piety and veneration for authority. You see this most clearly in the figure of Inspector Truscott, who, while posing as a man from the Metropolitan Water Board, turns out to be a corruptible sadist. Christopher Fulford plays him to perfection as a moustached suburbanite with a manic gleam.

Sinead Matthews is equally wonderful as the nurse, Fay, suggesting a devout Irish Catholic crossed with a lethal version of Barbara Windsor in a Carry On… hospital movie. As the bereaved Mr McLeavy, Ian Redford also exactly captures the powerlessness of integrity in an ethically bankrupt world.

I’ve often thought that Orton’s play lacked the implied moral positive that is the requisite of great satire. But this production reminds us that Orton viewed society from the vantage point of an observant outsider and that his cynicism has lost none of its bite. When the nurse claims that “the British police used to be run by men of integrity” and Truscott solemnly replies “That is a mistake which has been rectified”, the line is greeted with applause. If Orton’s play still shocks, it is because so much of its savage wit turns out to have a ring of truth.

At Park theatre, London, until 24 September. Box office: 020-7870 6876. And at the Watermill, Newbury, 28 September to 21 October. Box office: 01635-46044.

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