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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Entertaining Mr. Sloane
Trafalgar Studios       Winter-Spring 2009

Joe Orton's 1964 comedy - the one about the polysexual hustler who cannily exploits the randiness of a middle-aged brother and sister - is, like all his others, an uninhibited celebration of bad taste, an invitation to the audience to affirm with their laughter that they retain some remnants of rebellion and independence.

At his best, Orton offers a temporary liberation from the constraints of politeness and political correctness; at his worst he has the Benny Hill quality of a small boy trying a little too hard to be shocking - and that can be fun, too.

Nick Bagnall's new production is very uneven and far from completely successful, but enough of Orton's energy and outrageousness survives to make for a modestly satisfying evening.

Foremost among the production's virtues is the glorious Imelda Staunton.

One of Orton's favourite comic devices is the moral blind spot, as characters may have no problem with murder but be offended by bad language, and Staunton has a field day with a woman too moronically innocent to see any conflict in her thinking of her new boarder as her baby boy while she's bedding him.

'I will be your mama,' she says, dragging him down on top of her on the parlour floor, announcing with totally unironic glee a few months later that he is going to have a baby brother.

Simon Paisley Day is fun also as her actual brother, not only because the absurdly tall actor and diminutive actress make a walking sight gag together, but because he makes the man so swallowed up by his middle class morality that he isn't aware that virtually every line he speaks - be it about taking the young man in hand or getting behind him is bursting with homosexual double entendres.

Like Staunton, Day captures exactly the right tone of idiotic innocence that makes the character almost believable while being hilarious.

The weak link in all this is Mathew Horne as Sloane, who is alone onstage in not seeming to have any sense of his character at all. He certainly gives no hint of Sloane's awareness of his sexual power or calculation in the use of it.

The most that could be said of Horne's Sloane is that he is passive, going with whatever flow the others generate rather than exploiting them.

But, since Horne as an actor doesn't bring much personality or energy to the proceedings, he remains something of a black hole, sucking life out of his scenes rather than contributing to the fun.

His one sustained sequence, in which he takes on the old man (played without much stylistic connection to the rest of the play by Richard Bremmer) who sees through him, has no menace or comedy or even rhythm to it.

Too many times in recent weeks I've had to complain about directors who didn't seem to have any real affinity for the genre in which they were working, and now Nick Bagnall appears to have too little sense of the demands of both black comedy and farce.

Too many scenes plod slowly when they should build in frantic speed, or are played straight when they are meant to be over-the-top self-parodies.

A long scene late in the play when brother turns against sister in the fight for Sloane's services is clearly meant to be farcical, but is played so stolidly that it is just ugly and cruel.

That the play survives these central failings and is still a lot of fun is a tribute to Imelda Staunton, Simon Paisley Day and, above all, the unique Joe Orton.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Entertaining Mr Sloane - Trafalgar Studios 2009
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