Even before his death, at the hands of his hammer-wielding lover, Kenneth Haliwell, in August 1967, Orton’s fame was assured thanks to his savagely humourous attack upon the morals of the day. Through a series of plays, including Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964) Loot (1966) and What the Butler Saw (produced postumously in 1969) Orton mocked the pretentions of British society and the restrictive views of the day concerning sexuality. Today, the phrase ‘Ortonesque’ is used in literary and theatrical circles to describe work that is outrageously or hilariously macabre.
The Melbourne Theatre Company launched their 2007 season tonight with a new production of Joe Orton’s first, full length play, Entertaining Mr Sloane. The MTC describe it as "Orton's classic dark comedy about a handsome stranger with a secret, his libininous landlady, her gender-bending brother and geriatric father."A typically Ortonesque production, the play is an entertaining period piece, but one which fails to totally stand the test of time, with the dialogue in particular seeming overly verbose. Too, Orton's misogynistic streak is uncomfortably pronounced, and despite its farcial nature, the play's savagery seemed to provoke more than a few winces and sideways glances in tonight's opening-night audience.
Of the cast, Amanda Muggleton as Kath (the landlady) was outstanding, in full grasp of her accent and character. Richard Piper hammed up the role of Ed, Kath's brother, complete with a laughter-milking nervous tic, while Bob Hornery as Kemp, their father, was understated but impressive in his relatively minor but nonetheless crucial role. Ben Geurens was appropriately handsome and seductive as the titular Mr Sloane, a bisexual bad-boy who seduces both Kath and Ed, and who seems to have them both firmly under his thumb, but he appeared to be labouring to maintain his accent; so much so that his dialogue failed to flow, especially in the first half of the play.
As I've previously complained, Simon Phillips, the MTC Artistic Director, directs satire with what strikes me as too heavy a hand. This was, unfortunately, once again evident tonight, with unfortunate results. In addition, his decision to merge the play's three acts into two resulted in the first half of the evening dragging somewhat, although this is also a fault in Orton's immature early text, which only really takes off after the death of old man Kemp, in the second act of this production.
The set design by Shaun Gurton was exemplary, hinting at the restrictive home inhabited by the characters, their social pretentions, and the division between their fantasies and grubby reality, while Matt Scott's lighting design was subdued but effective. Music by David Chesworth was occasionally contrived and invasive, but generally matched the tone of the production well. Overall, a safe and entertaining night out at the theatre, but not one I can fully recommend unless you want to view a production once considered shocking and confrontational, but which today is little more than an entertaining piece of period drama, adequately but unimaginatively staged.
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Studio, until February 10.