Entertaining Mr Sloane by the oft-acknowledged master of black comedies, Joe Orton, is a journey to the dark side of humanity.
Albeit one disguised with such witty, euphemism-laden banter that you’re apt to forget you are witnessing people, desperate for the best in life, behaving at their very worst.
And Kath (Alice Livingstone) and Ed (Pete Nettel), in New Theatre’s production of the classic play, directed by Rosane McNamara, are behaving as badly as anyone can, all the while dressing up their behaviour in a see-through thin veneer of flimsy middle-class morality.
They have more reason than most to reach brazenly for the brass ring. Kath and her father, Kemp (Frank McNamara) live in a rundown house on the edge of a rubbish dump. Plans to build more houses were shelved decades before, and they remain socially and physically isolated, holding on to middle class aspirations while all too aware they will come to naught.
Flamboyant Ed (whose homsexuality is accorded the same treatment as everything else in the lives of this blighted family; that is conveniently ignored), who has not spoken to his father in 20 years after he was discovered committing a “felony in the bedroom” as a teenager talks big, extolling the vast extent of his business success at every turn.
But the Shakespearian phrase “the lady doth protest too much methinks” (Hamlet) applies to him more than most, as it soon becomes apparent that his wealth is built on more talk than actuality and may well have criminal underpinnings.
Long suffering Kemp is the irascible father contending with two avaricious and emotionally needy children who push him one way then the other as it suits them. Ostensibly they love him, or so they say, but it is very much a situational love dependent on what he can do for them. Such as when he is dispatched with 5p on the bus to fetch Mr Sloan’es bags, when he moves in from his previous digs by Kath who is more interested in bedding the youthful and charming Mr Sloane than she is about her aged father’s welfare.
This is symptomatic of the effect that Mr Sloane, played to charming, and later, menacing, perfection by the gifted Brynn Loosemore, has on this hollowed-out family. They are willing to do anything to accommodate him and he uses this to his own ends, manipulating Kath and Ed, and intimidating Kemp, the one person who doesn’t buy his act, into silence … and worse.
While Loosemore’s British accent may have wandered in and out, his ability to portray a 20 year old orphan who has spent his life in state homes, and is willing to do anything to craft a better life for himself, was spot on through the performance. No matter how dastardly his acts, he managed to keep Mr Sloane as a somewhat sympathetic person whose actions were at least somewhat understandable.
So too Alice Livingstone as Kath and Peter Nettel as Ed, the almost incestuous brother and sister act, who channel a craving for emotional intimacy so perfectly that their willingness to take all of Mr Sloane’s blatant lies as gospel truth if it keeps him in their lives makes sense. You cringe and recoil, and yes laugh uproariously, as you watch them be robbed by Mr Sloane, literally and figuratively, of the little sense of family they have remaining.
It is testament to these gifted actors that you almost feel sorry for them, even as they twist themselves into ever more pretzel-like shapes to allow for Mr Sloane’s transparently self-seeking demands, convincing themselves that no price is too high to pay. They remain oblivious to the last they are trading off any semblance of filial piety and ripping the rags of their middle class morality to shreds in order to gain the dubious prize of shared “custody” of Mr Sloane.
For his part, the sociopathic Sloane takes full advantage of the siblings’ craven desire for his company by inciting them to ever more destructive acts all in the name of ensuring his ongoing well being.
You realise early on, as you witness the downfall of this family – though they get what they want at the end of the story, it is questionable whether what they have is worth anything anymore; or indeed if it was ever worth anything – the gift of Joe Orton’s razor-sharp ability to dissect and lay more the troubled underpinnings of middle class morality.
Though the right words are spoken, and the right conventions observed, it is all done in name only – Kath worries almost reflexively though with little real concern about what people will think even as she wantonly seduces Mr Sloane, masking her naked lust with more righteous-sounding platitudes than a republican party convention – and Joe Orton exposes the unsavoury fact that all is not well in the hallowed bastions of Western democracy – the middle class family.
His observations remain bleedingly sharp in this consumption obsessed age, which is remarkable since the play is almost 50 years old, having debuted on 6 May 1964 at the New Arts Theatre in Central London.
It has held its age well, and as we laughed, cringed and at times looked away in discomfort, it became all too clear that with the right amount of prodding and poking, and the right inducements, that we too could descend into the uncomfortably rotten realm of Kath, Ed, and the duplicitous Mr Sloane, and be every bit as comfortable with the Faustian deal struck.