wed 29/05/2024

Killer Joe, Trafalgar Studios review - family drama, creepy and cruel | reviews, news & interviews

Killer Joe, Trafalgar Studios review - family drama, creepy and cruel

Killer Joe, Trafalgar Studios review - family drama, creepy and cruel

Hitman-cop Orlando Bloom coolly rules Tracy Letts's gothically noir world

Master of a universe: Orlando Bloom in 'Killer Joe' Images: Marc Brenner

Right from the beginning of Simon Evans’s production of Tracy Letts's 1993 play, it’s clear we’re in for an intense, raw experience. A storm of almost symphonic musical accompaniment roars, lightning flashing over the claustrophobic trailer interior where the tight two hours-plus run of Killer Joe will play out.

Star billing here, of course, goes to Orlando Bloom, who's back on the West End stage after a decade away, in the title role as the corrupt cop who doubles as a hitman. But Grace Smart’s set deserves no less of a round of applause (main picture): it takes over the compact space of the Trafalgar Studios auditoriumin fully, from the yard-like surface we tread over as we enter right up to the skies hanging over the trailer-park roof which provides an occasional get-away. For more about trailer parks, take a moment to read the fascinating (rare to write that!) programme essay “Trailer Trash: The Truth behind the Stereotype”, which makes a case for such environments as not automatically places “of last resort where the American dream’s rejects are swept out of sight”.Killer Joe - l-r Adam Gillen (Chris Smith), Steffan Rhodri (Ansel Smith)Trouble is, I don’t think Tracy Letts would have recognised such an optimistic view as having much to do with the super-dark world he creates in Killer Joe. (Nor, for that matter, would Sam Shepard, the shadow of whose work certainly looms here; the other influence must surely be Tennessee Williams, an unusual doubling). The stage picture doesn’t leave us in doubt, either: a chunk seems to have been bitten out of one of the trailer’s walls, as if there’s some monster alien presence out there, while its cramped interior is as basic as it gets, the television set a defining feature, we feel, in these dead-end lives. Only the small cross hanging in a corner, almost over the sink, surprises: is there be a place for any sense of higher power or defining morality here?

Letts certainly gives plenty of ironic attention to morality in this macabre and distorted family drama. The Smiths have got problems, as we guess when drug-dealer son Chris (Adam Gillen, fresh from Amadeus at the National) blunders frantically back, in the middle of the night, to the family shack where his father Ansel (Steffan Rhodri, pictured above, with Adam Gillen) lives with his younger second wife Sharla (Neve McIntosh); daughter Dottie (Sophie Cookson) is there too, though she's more caught up in her own private world. Chris needs money urgently, so proposes having his mother killed for her insurance payout; his dad needs no convincing to be rid of his ex, and even Dottie – they think she can’t overhear them – agrees, with alacrity.

Orlando Bloom’s Joe is the man for the job. His poise is there in every gesture, defining him as belonging to another world, but he’s going to become a part of this one, at least temporarily, as he takes Dottie on as a “retainer”, to make up for the lack of payment up front. Such is the screwed-up nature of Chris that while he doesn’t bat an eyelid over commissioning a hit-job on his mother, he’s outraged at the idea of prostituting the kid sister with whom he clearly has a special bond.Killer Joe -Orlando Bloom (Killer Joe Cooper),  Sophie Cookson (Dottie Smith)What follows is discomforting in the extreme. With Bruce Springsteen’s painfully loaded “I’m on Fire” playing on the radio, Joe’s seduction of Dottie is a very uneasy watch indeed, never more so than now, when the associations of a powerful man demanding sex from a vulnerable woman, indeed effectively choreographing the process, are so much under scrutiny (pictured above). But when you choose Letts and this play, that’s what you get and more, in fact, with a later scene introducing a fried chicken leg into the process for an excruciatingly prolonged ritual of debasement.

Letts displays such complete assurance in manipulating the sheer gothic macabre of his second-half material that it’s practically wicked to watch, even if the exact implications of director Simon Evans’s interpretation of the final moments leave you puzzled. Comedy here comes second to the darkness, evidenced by the fact that it’s Gillen’s ability to convey damage – there’s a cyborg-like, Frankenstein monster quality to his Chris – that stays with you more than Bloom’s preening Marlboro Man composure.

No mistake, Bloom plays Joe with virtuoso precision, but the boundaries of the role are defined. Only in the monologues that Letts periodically gives his characters do we get a suggestion that their inner lives, pinned down here with noir exactitude, might run deeper. Killer Joe hits like a sharp splash of ice-cold water, and it's supposed to make you squirm. All kudos to Grace Smart's sets, Edward Lewis's sound design, and Richard Howell's lighting for making the dousing so bracing.

While Chris doesn’t bat an eyelid over commissioning a hit-job on his mother, he’s outraged at prostituting the kid sister with whom he clearly has a special bond


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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