March 22, 2001: Orton, Entertaining Mr Sloan

Arts Theatre

Orton’s first play, produced in May 1963 by the Arts Theatre Club, London. It transferred to Wyndham’s in June, and Orton proceeded to write Loot in the next few months. There is a large loose end at the end of Mr Sloan (see below), but it does not get in the way of Orton’s signature voice, which can be heard from beginning to end of this farce-satire (call it what you like). The casting, timing, and tone of this production were really fine: the Brits really know how to do farce. They’ve had centuries of practice, and they get it right (unlike Americans, who do not know about picking up cues when it comes to this). As Oscar Wilde said of his own play (The Importance of Being Earnest), it must go like a pistol shot.

It does, though not quite with the alacrity of Orton’s true masterpiece, What the Butler Saw, which is written for a larger cast and which has a swift succession of entrances. Mr Sloane is still very satisfying. Dealing as it does with a hetero­sexual (and very randy) middle-aged woman, her homosexual brother, and a young man of doubtful — or perhaps double — orientation whom she takes in as a lodger, and ending on the compromise, satisfactory to all, of sharing the young man’s favors, the play could not possibly have passed the sensor and no doubt was not submitted. Instead, as in the case of Inadmissible Evidence and other contraband plays of the ‘60s (until the end of censorship in 1968), audiences had to join a “club,” and then as members buy tickets to a private performance. I remember doing exactly that, at Wyndham’s, in 1965, paying five shillings to join the club, going away for an hour, and then returning to buy a ticket to Osborne’s play.

Allison Steadman is deliciously good as Kath, the frumpy, horny landlady who immediately proceeds to seduce and become pregnant by the lodger, Mr Sloan (Neil Stuke). Stuke really looks the part, with his close-cropped dyed blonde hair and shifty eyes, and a physique good enough to wear leather convincingly (as he does in the second act). On reflection, I think he did not have quite the distance, the blithe, amused detachment that the role requires. But he did well enough.

And it was a pleasure to hear Orton’s authentic voice, and inimitable quality of matter-of-factness about the impossible, the ludicrous, the obscene, the unmentionable. Orton had a unique capacity to call things by their right names. He brings a tone of ostensible reason and logic to the most outrageous and intolerable of human situations. But, in the true spirit of farce, no one finally has to face the consequences of their transgressive behavior. Instead, a plainly fantastic, wish-fulfilling ending is manufactured in the nick of time. The most spectacular instance of this wonderful deus ex machina is the final moment of What the Butler Saw and its ascent by ladder through the skylight. The win-win compromise at the end of Mr Sloane isn’t spectacular in any way, but it satisfies all the same by letting the three deeply culpable characters — any one of whom is a violent murderer — go scot free. Mr Sloan is of course that murderer: he has kicked Kath and Ed’s father to death because the doddering old fool offended him. The old fool, having been helped up the stairs by Ed, lies dead in his bed. They all agree to the mock-up story that Daddy died from a fall down the stairs. But it is never explained how he then got back up the stairs and into his bed. We half expect, before the play is quite over, that Ed and Mr Sloan will go back up the stairs and push the corpse back down to the bottom. No such thing happens, and so we are left wondering how the medical inspectors will be persuaded by the trumped-up story. This is the weak spot in the plot, the loose end that nags slightly at us as the lights go down. But only slightly.



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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