What was shocking in 1966, when Joe Orton’s Loot first hit the stage, is still surprisingly provocative even now. And it’s certainly funny. I can’t really remember a time in the recent past when I laughed so involuntarily, so heartily, or so often. In Sydney Theatre Company’s new production, director Richard Cottrell seems to be a pig in mud with this material.

That Orton met his maker so young, and so viciously, thanks to the jealousy of his lover Kenneth Halliwell, tends to imbue the work with extra value, as one of but a handful of lays to cherish. But even without this backstory, it’s a profoundly well-written play, that makes a mockery of authority, especially the police. And it does it without ever succumbing to literary references, or betraying the smarts of its writer.

It’s a play, for all intents and purposes, written by one of the people, for all of the people, who it entreats by working on a number of levels, from the merely very funny to the bitingly sarcastic and bitterly cynical. It seems to me Orton writes dark farce as well as any, and better than most, and I include Wilde and Coward in the comparison. And as with those, he manages to hide almost sinister, subversive social commentary under a blanket of snappy, sardonic one-liners.

Cottrell has cast eclectically and successfully. Indeed, he seems to extract the very best from each and every one of the actors. Victoria Lamb has designed a wonderful set, capturing the very essence of the time in which it was written, right down to the ducks on the wall. It puts us right there, before a word is uttered.

Orton’s unforgiving attacks on two of society’s most revered and reviled institutions, the Catholic church and coppers, scandalous then, seem prescient now, not least in Australia, where p-dophilia and endemic corruption have tarnished each, respectively, beyond repair. And, more generally, Orton’s relentless naughty boyishness, outed in a milieu where denial was de rigueur, predates the wider cause for skepticism. He broke, or re-broke, the yoke of mouldy propriety, in the sense of it being a polite euphemism for hypocrisy; so terribly British and, by dint of heritage, also Australian.

The details: Loot plays the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until October 23. Tickets on the company website.

Peter Fray

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