Loot – Soulpepper Theatre Company

By John Bourke


For some reason, even though I’m a theatre geek of long standing, have a more than passing interest in British comedy and would like to think of myself as having a certain hedonistic streak,  I had never heard of Joe Orton before this week. This is a shame really, because in Soulpepper’s Loot, he really seems to hit all those things right on the button.


Loot, now being produced by Soulpepper Theatre Company, had a troubled beginning in 1965 when it first premiered, with even Orton himself saying it was “a disaster” and had repeated rewrites even during the course of its initial run, with the cast undergoing rehearsals for new material during the day for the performance that night.  Ah, the life of a professional actor.  Orton, thankfully, rewrote the play substantially after its first run and it seems to have improved immeasurably for it.
Here’s the setup:  McLeavy (Oliver Dennis) has just lost his wife (a stunningly unrealistic dummy) whose coffin is still in the living room. Hal (Matthew Edison), his son, and Dennis (Jonathan Watton), his sometimes lover, have just robbed a bank and are planning on leaving for Portugal so they can spend the money.  Meanwhile, Fay (Nicole Underhay), the dead woman’s nurse, has designs on Mr. McLeavy but has also slept with Dennis, who plans on marrying her.  When inspector Truscott (Michael Hanrahahn) comes sniffing around, the boys must try to stash the titular loot in a way that allows them to get it out safely.  Zaniness (and not a little bit of kookiness) ensues.  This does seem like a lot, but in my extensive knowledge of British society – gained almost entirely from Monty Python, BBC sitcoms, Christmas pantos and bedroom farces – happens on an almost daily basis over there.  Which probably explains why the empire doesn’t account for much any more.
I should also add, since bad accents put my teeth on edge, that even though I think the whole cast is Canadian, they all do pretty good English accents.  Not perfect of course, one of the actors didn’t seem all that sure about his, landing somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic rather than Ireland, but overall good enough not to distract me from the rest of the play.
If you’re a fan of British comedy, even if you haven’t previously seen Orton’s work,  you’ll probably find a lot familiar about the sort of comedy in Loot, and you’ll probably like it a lot.  Python began a decade or so after this, and there’s a lot in it that I think most likely found inspiration in Orton’s work.  Similarly, the Goon Show, preceding Orton by a decade, more than likely informed the sort of comedy Orton was producing.
Where Orton strays from the aforementioned groups is that where the Goons specialized in surrealistic randomness, and Monty Python had as much physical and bawdy humour as it did anything else, Loot relies on quick witted verbosity.  Which is to say there are a lot of words in Loot.  This is not the kind of play where you can let your attention wander for any time at all since there is pretty much always something being said at a frenetic pace, and they really don’t give you a chance to catch up.
Another hallmark (apparently) of Orton is his penchant for inviting outrage and the tipping of sacred cows.  I noticed the play making fun of Queen Victoria, Catholics, Protestants, Irish people, detective fiction, the police, free society in general and the UK in specific, decorum, middle class ethics, respect for the dead and the water board, and those are just the ones I wrote down.  Now, the interesting thing is that in the context of the present day, nothing in the play was particularly shocking, controversial or outrageous; other people have taken the torch from Orton (Parker and Stone come to mind as being very much in the same vein) and pushed it out even further.  Where 40+ years ago people were scandalized by Loot, it now almost appears quaint.  Still very funny of course, but nothing that you should feel worried about bringing your retiree mother to, because she’ll most likely be just fine with it.
My show partner for this was my retiree mother.  She’s a British expat, so has a lot of exposure to British culture, and does see a reasonable amount of live theatre.  She liked the show in general, and said it was particularly good because she didn’t really have to think about it too much.  She wasn’t as fond of the pace, saying that they could’ve taken a few more pauses in the action, and thought everybody may have been playing everything a bit over the top, but as she put it, “what the heck”.
So, in summary, if you like British humour and have pretty good hearing, go see it.  If, however, your sense of propriety hasn’t changed since 1959, you should probably give it a miss, because you’ll probably be offended.
-Scorched plays at the Young Centre on random days from June 5 to August 1 – see the calendar for dates
– Tickets from $36 to $68
-Students: $28 (all seating) 
Rush tickets are available in person at the Young Centre box office 15 minutes prior to curtain.  Note:  You can arrive an hour before the performance and get a number to reserve a spot in line.  Rush tickets are subject to availability. CASH ONLY.  Regular Rush: $20, Youth Rush (21 and under): $5
 -Box office info: online or call 416.866.8666 Tuesday to Saturday 1 – 8pm.  


Photo of  Oliver Dennis, Nicole Underhay and Matthew Edison by Cylla von Tiedemann