The shock waves created by John Osborne’s seminal Look Back In Anger (1956) in the hitherto cosy post-war British theatre, had a mini boost two years later with the appearance of Shelagh Delaney’s in-your-face A Taste of Honey, and a seismic one six years after that with the arrival of an iconoclastic playwright bovver boy called Joe Orton.
His first play, Entertaining Mr Sloane certainly brought a blush to the cheeks of easily shockable Aunt Ednas everywhere whose ideal West End play was The Chalk Garden or anything by Terence Rattigan. Indeed, it was Rattigan who championed Mr. Sloane after its controversial premiere in 1964, recognising in its young author an exhilaratingly fresh, albeit shocking tone of voice that could simultaneously ruffle feathers as well as excitingly raise the hairs on the back of the neck.
In synopsis, the plot couldn’t be sleazier. Mr. Sloane, a physically attractive young thug exploits a middle-aged brother and sister, murders their decrepit old father, after which he is blackmailed into sexually servicing both siblings. Orton’s achievement isn’t simply pushing the boundaries of bad taste to a degree hitherto foreign to British playwriting, but the stylised language he uses to leaven the sleaze and, of course, the humour he draws from the situation. For years it has been fashionable to compare his use of language with Oscar Wilde’s; the high-toned formality appliqued onto mundane thoughts, inspired flashes of wit, elegant phrases camouflaging inelegant thoughts. And, above all, a liberating expose of, in Orton’s case, lower middle-class hypocrisy.
Orton is particularly in his element with the character of the misogynistic gay brother Ed whose pompous veneer of respectability and many double-entendres provide some delicious verbal pyrotechnics. Kath, the forty-ish sister who picks up Mr. Sloane in a library, brings him back home, changes into a see-through negligée and promptly seduces him, offers much comic ballast as well.
As played in director Nick Bagnall’s enjoyable revival, a moustachioed Simon Paisley Day and the wonderful Imelda Staunton excavate a gloriously Ortonesque vein of controlled comic acting, and Richard Bremmer is appropriately doddery as the elderly father Kemp. My only reservation is Matthew Horne’s uncharismatic Mr. Sloane. Neither sexy nor particularly menacing – two essential qualities for Sloane – it’s hard, in Horne’s performance, to justify what the verbal and physical sparring for possession of his body is all about.
Fortunately the production – with its atmospherically decaying set by Peter McKintosh – survives this flaw. But what could have been a superlative revival is now merely a good one.
ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE Trafalgar Studios, London
CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London.