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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Killer Joe
Trafalgar Studios  Summer 2018

Killer Joe is one of those plays that was very much of its time (early 90s USA) yet survived to become a pocket-ensemble staple – joining a list that includes Speed the Plough and Three Women – suitable for venues small and large, and beloved of screen stars wanting to return to their stage roots.

So, now starring Orlando Bloom, this is the one about Deep South trailer-trash subculture where marginal lives come with a bend in reality for most aspects of life, especially where moral norms are concerned. It’s a world that Tracy Letts’ 1993 play dissects with an unerring eye without ever judging.

Bloom drives the plot as Killer Joe Cooper, the cop moonlighting as a hitman who descends on the dysfunctional Smith family in a dark comedy of gloriously inept errors where an ill-conceived plan for ill-gotten gain via a murder for life insurance drops this hapless gathering deep into the Gothic abyss of America’s social underbelly. 

Violence, nudity, more violence and a wince-making chicken drumstick fellatio scene add appropriately unsettling punctuation across the sprawling trailer park set.

It’s a worthy choice to guarantee a sold-out run on the West End, especially when it delivers double-value as a star vehicle for Orlando Bloom and, as already noted, a solid ensemble piece.

However, it’s also a funny old play because there’s really only one way to stage it, namely to race through the dialogue at breakneck speed without overthinking it, relying on Letts’ earthy Southern dialogue and twists of plot to define the characters, situational humour and motivation.

The result should be a dark, violent, near absurdist comedy, and if you don’t look too closely Simon Evans’ production gets away with it - just.

In reality there’s far too much thinking going on, rather than revelling in the helter-skelter come-uppances of these paragons of greed.

Bloom brings undeniable presence to Killer Joe yet his soul-searching approach means that his character fails to ignite any of that all-important menace. It isn’t that complicated, honestly - knowing this is your local psychopath is more than enough for the audience to be on the edge without losing humour or noir.

Since the other characters have to take their lead from how Killer Joe is set up, though the cast work hard their performances suffer.

Strongest is Sophie Cookson’s vulnerable daughter Dottie Smith, bringing depth to the woman-child offered up by her family as sexual sacrifice to the hitman. 

As her seedy self-serving father Ansel, Stefan Rhodri is unfocused, although Neve McIntosh puts in convincing swagger as feisty stepmother Sharla. As odious petty drug dealer son Chris, Adam Gillen’s OTT take is undermined by an accent that’s more miss than hit.

By opting for drama (with laughs) rather than straight-ahead farce, the play bleeds comedy and pace, not helped by set and costumes that lack any meaningful nod to Americana, while the  episodes are hit and miss in evoking atmosphere or plot nudges. 

So several tricks missed, and yet... and yet... somehow, such is the magic of theatre, none of it prevents this latest outing from being the winning crowd-pleaser it is.

Nick Awde

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Review - Killer Joe - Trafalgar Studios 2018  
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