Entertaining Mr. Sloane
Two of the TCS Theatre team review George Johnston's production of this Orton classic....
When one is looking for a truly dark play with menacing undertones and just a splash of the psychotic one quickly finds themselves on the theatrical door step of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane.
A play about a seemingly charming man entering a family only to smash them mentally pieces is not an uncommon theme in theatre; you only need look to Pinter's The Birthday Party and Potter's Brimstone & Treacle to see that, not mention the vast collection of Agatha Christie plays! It would seem that there is something in the human psyche which innately fears the coming of an unexpected guest and it is this we all expected to see on the opening night of George Johnston's production at the Corpus Playroom.
This production, however, neglects Orton's real sense of macabre opting instead to dive face first into slapstick and silliness. While the set is dressed with a degree of detail and sense of period, muddy brown wall paper and flowery lamp shades, the logistics of the action around it were just not thought through. If it wasn't actors pulling crumpets and razors from the cabinet draw then it was the laboured, dance like, manoeuvrings around the sofa; it all proved to be just a little too distracting. Balazs Torok's portrayal of the old man Kemp was also entirely misjudged. Adopting a ‘funny' voice, walk and look totally contrasted with the sinister tone of the writing while Kemp was describing Sloane's beating of him, it seemed as though Torok was going more for laughs than for sympathy, a complete betrayal of the character.
Credit however, must go to Stephen Bailey and Eleanor Hardy for their more than competent performances. Stephen Bailey, although taking time to warm up, picked up his stride in the second act, playing Sloane as a kind of petulant teenager. Eleanor Hardy gave the best performance of all as the sexually deprived Kath. Grey wig, see through dress and glasses on the end of her nose, she had all the equipment needed to give the hammiest, most slapstick performance of the night and yet she was by far the most contained and nuanced.
The truth is that this production has the makings of a very strong piece of theatre, if only it could iron out the blocking issues and completely burn any hint of slapstick. Remember, Mr. Sloane's not the only one who needs entertaining.
There are laughs to be had and the ending always packs its unsettling punch, but, despite something of a star turn from Eleanor Hardy, I never felt that George Johnston's production quite cracked Entertaining Mr Sloane.
Certainly it is ambitious and detailed, fitting snugly into the Corpus Playroom. Tasha Sales's set is impressive, replete with fireplace and pitch-perfect brown wallpaper, but let down by some boring problems: a photograph of a fire in the fire-place, for instance, that presumably intended irony but achieved risibility.
Yet the play rests on its performers. The bizarre, childlike artifice of Orton's dialogue is well managed and chafes well against the naturalism of the set. Yet while the Hardy's strength rightly propelled Kath to the forefront, the remaining trio in her orbit didn't seem quite up to the mark, more through a fault of directorial interpretation than anything else. Stephen Bailey is canny physical casting as Sloane, and his performance is menacingly louche and confident. But he gabbles his words rather, missing Sloane's captivating side: one can never quite understand the charm and power this Machiavelli exerts over the siblings he encounters.
Oliver Marsh played Ed as an amusingly weedy ball of petulance but never convinced as the successful and violently controlling businessman who, in his way, is as destructive as Sloane. The joke of his double entendres and the discomfort of his evident homosexuality, come from their juxtaposition with at least a veneer of power and surface macho, absent here: and both he and Bailey seemed just slightly too aware that their lines were funny. Balazs Torok, I'm afraid to say, was quite simply a gurning disaster as Kemp, rather ruining the denouement in which the old man has a vital role: over-blown and unintelligible, body crooked at ninety degrees, voice an impenetrable Gollum-hiss, this was simply ridiculous ‘old man' acting.
The evening's success is partly down, then, to Eleanor Hardy who rescues Kath from the usual buxom landlady of Ortonian caricature. We have instead a thin, pursed, plausibly fertile and fantastically wigged Kath, her voice and her contradictions captured perfectly: the repetitive baby-talk, the cunning sexuality, and, most impressively, the desperate, solitary, sadness.
Credit must, in part, be due to director Johnston, who keeps things (bar a few first-night technical hitches) ticking along nicely and has a feel for the atmosphere of the oppressive flat. The music too is a nice, knowing, touch - although oddly superfluous blocking often resulted in fruitless circling around the crummy, brown sofa.
But it is only Hardy who ever seems to mine the depths of this play that contains much space for both comedy and violence to be stretched to shocking limits. There is something darker, more absurd even, about Orton's particular sexual hysteria poured into in a strange Pinteresque power struggle, than Johnston's rather one-note reading allows. There is very little tension, very little sinister feeling of a brutal play spiralling inexorably out of control in a chintzy hotbed of inappropriate seduction – and thus the ending jars somewhat.
It's competent certainly, and funny – but I'd hazard there's more to it.