BWW Review: KILLER JOE, Trafalgar Studios
After spending several months as the Trafalgar Fair, a Texas trailer park takes root at Trafalgar Studios as a new production of Tracy Letts' Killer Joe begins its run. It's directed by Simon Evans, who previously helmed a production of Letts's Bug at the short-lived venue Found111; the show also marks the return of Orlando Bloom to the London stage, starring alongside Steffan Rhodri, Neve McIntosh, Sophie Cookson and Adam Gillen.
Chris Smith's money troubles seem to be finally catching up with him. He owes $6,000 and can see no way of obtaining that sort of sum, especially as his dad Ansel is unable (and unwilling) to lend him a hand.
The only option he seems to have left is to have his mum killed and divide her life insurance payout (which he's sure is being left to his sister, Dottie) between the rest of the family. He even knows who can take care of the messy business for him: Detective 'Killer' Joe Cooper.
Ansel has been divorced from his children's mother for some time, but resentment still festers and times are hard, so he agrees to go along with the idea. However, when the Smiths admit they can't pay his fee in advance, Joe takes the infantile 20-year-old Dottie as his "retainer" - that's when things start to get complicated...
Set in Reagan's America in the 1980s, the desperate state of the Smith family has a real resonance with our own time; people were forced into the trailer parks when affordable housing disappeared, and we now find ourselves in the midst of our own housing crisis. Talk of personal debt is rife and can lead to all manner of desperate steps being taken. In fact, you could easily imagine the action being transposed onto a modern day council estate.
It's a dark play that covers a range of themes - the way Dottie is used and manipulated is particularly shocking - but at the same time it manages to be incredibly funny. The pressure builds and builds over the course of two hours, only to release in an unexpectedly farcical manner; the final sequence, soundtracked by The Turtles' "Happy Together", has been masterfully put together (with movement direction from Oliver Kaderbhai) and is performed with real gusto by the cast.
The show is a visual treat. Grace Smart's set places the focus on the Smiths' trailer by having it opened up and centre stage, but with the outsides of neighbouring trailers also visible to contextualise the setting.
It's complemented by Richard Howell's lighting design, which also helps to transition between scenes, casting vivid blocks of colour at the press of a TV remote control button. The lightning effects are also well done, in combination with sound design from Edward Lewis.
Steffan Rhodri and Neve McIntosh impress as Ansel and Sharla Smith (his second wife), and Adam Gillen is a riot as Chris. They provide much of the out-and-out comedy, especially Rhodri and Gillen as the hapless father-son pairing, neither quite knowing what to do for the best. There isn't a lot for Sharla to do early on, which feels like a bit of a waste of McIntosh's talents, though she absolutely comes into her own later.
Sophie Cookson brings a sense of otherworldliness to Dottie; her naivety is striking and sad, while her sleepwalking (or is it?) and tendency to lurk where she can overhear everything is rather eerie.
This works incredibly well with Orlando Bloom's portrayal of the eponymous character. Beginning with a very matter-of-fact attitude towards his murderous moonlighting, he has a quiet intensity and stillness that menaces like a shark circling its prey. Bloom does well to use moments of real aggression sparingly, proving Joe to be an intimidating teammate and adversary.
Not your typical night out at the theatre by any means, but one that's full of thought-provoking intensity and humour right up until the final blackout. Killer Joe is one killer show, and a fantastic addition to the West End.
Picture credit: Marc Brenner