Theatre review: Loot, AdAstra Theatre

Given a strong production and cast, Joe Orton’s celebrated 'Loot' is as relevant today as when it was first written.
Loot. Three people on stage look down at a corpse in a coffin, a young man with a moustache, an older grey-haired man and a blonde woman in a nurse's uniform.

Established in 2018, AdAstra is a small professional theatre company with a cosy 50-seater theatre, engaging first-class artists and presenting a range of quality theatre for discerning audiences. Not seen in Brisbane for many years, Joe Orton’s Loot is a cleverly-crafted, absurdist play that deserves this well-timed revival.     

Written in 1966, at the height of Swinging Sixties London, Orton’s black farce was designed to expose the hypocrisy and corruption prevalent in Britain at the time. It satirised social attitudes with regard to religion, death and authority, highlighting the integrity (or lack of it) of the police force in particular.

No social norms were left unexplored under Orton’s scathing pen. Regarded as scandalous and shocking when first produced, the play was cut under the British censorship laws to make it more palatable to audiences of the day. Fortunately, those cuts have now been restored helping to refocus the play with an even keener adherence to truth some 60 years later. With its mix of absurdity, biting satire, coarse humour and defiance of social niceties, Loot is still disturbing, but it is also highly entertaining. It succeeds because we still recognise its many home truths. 

The bizarre plot follows the lives of two highly unpleasant young characters, Hal and Dennis. Having robbed a bank next door to the funeral parlour where Dennis works, they return to Hal’s house to try and hide the cash, with the police in hot pursuit. Hal’s mother, Mrs McLeavey, has just died and for safety reasons they hide the money in her coffin.

Farcically, much of the play then centres on the constant moving of a dead body and the money, along with appearances from a grieving Mr McLeavey, the duplicitous nurse, Fay McMahon, and the dishonest and venal, Inspector Truscott.

Outlandish business by the characters is utilised to poke fun at and satirise the Roman Catholic Church, the rituals around death and burial, and the integrity of practitioners of medicine and the law.   

Renowned local actor and director, Jennifer Flowers, is at the helm of this production and gives us an intelligent, well-thought through rendition, with its fast-paced action and brisk vocal rhythms. Flowers obtains excellent diction and timing from her cast, while drawing out the humour of the dialogue from the contrast between the considered contemporary norms of behaviour and the bizarre elements of the characters’ actual conduct. Orton’s writing is spot on in this regard. 

Focused on the coffin of the recently deceased Mrs McLeavey, Bill Haycock’s simple house interior set design works as well as it can in such a small stage space. Furniture and props are kept to a minimum. The farcical elements of the script, with required character exits and entrances and the constant moving of the “dead” body, are limited though by the available space, while the actors do their utmost to not get in the way of each other.   

As Mr McLeavey, Iain Gardiner gives a finely tuned performance, his excellent Irish accent making his naïve and honest character instantly recognisable and credible. At first a figure of bereavement, he tries to reject the nurse’s overtures while condemning his son’s bad behaviour, but is ultimately powerless to fight the overwhelming corruption and greed. Dramatically, he is immensely funny, as he relishes his story about the car accident where he is injured.  

Fiona Kennedy is a powerful force as the Nurse, Fay, her seemingly pious Roman Catholicism brought sharply into hypocritical focus when we learn of her shockingly murderous behaviour.

Orton is at his best writing Fay’s speeches, with her mix of religious devotional dialogue hiding her dark undercurrent of wicked feelings. Her warm Irish accent and use of female adopted attributes, such as tears, are used to best advantage to glean male sympathy. Her entire character seems wrapped up in some Carry On movie framework, but with a deadly outcome. A first-rate performance.    

As Inspector Truscott, who starts life as “The Man from the Water Board”, Steven Grives appears as a Sherlock Holmes lookalike with raincoat, trilby hat, moustache and pipe. He appears to guess the secrets of Nurse Fay, whose crimes he has been tracking, while being blind to the real story of the body that is constantly being moved around. He shows an increasingly dark and malicious side to his easily corruptible persona as the play proceeds.

He also keeps the action moving at a cracking pace and has some of the best lines in the play, such as, ‘Policemen like red squirrels must be protected’, and responds to Fay’s declaration, ‘The British police used to be run by men of integrity’ with ‘That is a mistake which has been rectified’. Overall, it is a terrific and engaging performance, though when this reviewer attended he began to run out of steam towards the end, losing some of his lines.   

Jett Robson’s sleazy, heartless Hal and Liam Hartley’s repulsive, lewd Dennis are well-played, their amorality knowing no bounds when they wind up contemplating a threesome with Fay over the dead body of Hal’s’ mother. A gruesome ending.    

Lisa Hickey plays the corpse, Mrs McLeavey, and is variously turned upside down, stored in a cupboard, dressed and undressed and wrapped in a shroud. She is to be congratulated.  

On opening night at least there was a tendency for the cast to overexaggerate their respective roles, always a danger with farce. The play could have flowed a little more easily, without the need to push so hard, as their individual timing, repartee and responses to each other are excellent. Maybe because of this enthusiasm, their collective energy levels seemed to drop at the end of the play, at the point when emotions should probably have been heightened. 

Read: Theatre review: Closer, La Boite Theatre

In all other ways, this is a well-cast, finely delivered and very well-directed production of an important 20th century play that goes to the heart of how we are governed and how society responds. It continues to highlight a disquieting picture of truths and, disarmingly, is as fresh and relevant as when it was first written.     

Loot by Joe Orton

AdAstra Theatre, Brisbane
Director: Jennifer Flowers
Assistant Director and Production Manager: Liam Wallis
Production Design: Bill Haycock
Stage Manager: Daniel Hallen
Cast: Iain Gardiner, Fiona Kennedy, Jett Robson, Lisa Hickey, Steven Grives, James Enwright, Liam Hartley,

Loot will be performed until 27 April 2024.

Suzannah Conway is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She is a freelance arts writer and has been writing reviews and articles for over 20 years, regularly reviewing classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals. Most recently she was Arts Hub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer.