Paul T Davies reviews Orlando Bloom in Killer Joe by Tracy Letts now playing at Trafalgar Studios London.
They are called trailer park trash, the Americans who have slipped through the American Dream and have crashed onto the overgrown asphalt of society’s foundations. Chris has concocted a plan to get his hands on his mother’s inheritance, which he believes to be left to his sister Dottie, who their mother tried to murder when she was a baby, leaving her allegedly brain damaged. (Even though she is much more intelligent than her brother.) Convincing his father, Ansel, of the plan, they engage the services of Killer Joe Cooper, a detective who runs a side line in murder-for a fee. He waives the fee and requests Dottie as a retainer. Of course, when the money doesn’t come through, Killer Joe begins to wreck his revenge on the mother of all dysfunctional families.
The big draw here is Orlando Bloom, and he couldn’t have chosen a more perfect role to kick against his clean cut, heroic film franchise image. Sleazy and violent, Bloom commands the stage mainly through stillness and predatory, prowling movements. He is dominant through calmness, this man ain’t going anywhere, even when fleetingly naked he takes his time leaving the room, and the family become increasingly terrified of him. Although vocally he is a little one note, (some variation in tenderness and violence would enhance the role further), he commands the attention of the audience throughout. As Dottie, Sophie Cookson is excellent, projecting vulnerability and innocence, yet striking the smart notes effectively. Adam Gillen crackles with energy much like the lights that keep shorting in the trailer, Neve McIntosh nails mouthy, manipulating step mother Sharla, and Steffan Rhodri is excellent as Dad Ansel, never knowingly giving out affection.
Some of the symbolism is a little too obvious, the way the lights flicker when Joe brings out his sexual predator for example, and the lighting is a little eccentric in places. But the music is excellent, chiming perfectly with the action, and Grace Smart’s excellent set is claustrophobic and draws the auditorium closer to the action.
Where some contemporary playwrights seem to be shying away from confrontational situations they set up, writing in 1993, Tracy Lett’s play goes straight for the jugular. It is a disturbing play, the humour is anthracite black, and if you’re not uncomfortable watching Joe’s attitude towards women and violence then you need to check your moral compass. Letts also complicates our responses further by making Joe the one person that can bring Dottie salvation and rescue. The meal of take away chicken is the tensest and gripping dinner engagement since the Macbeth’s had friends round for dinner, and Simon Evans’s on point direction stretches the tension towards a gripping and hilarious finale, which reaches Greek levels of familial tragedy and comedy. Letts explodes the myth that the family is a system based on unconditional love and support and that home is a sanctuary. Gripping and hilarious, the revival of a classic American play is not to be missed!