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Killer Joe starring Orlando Bloom – review at Trafalgar Studios, London – ‘an unpleasant revival of a nasty play’

Orlando Bloom in Killer Joe at Trafalgar Studios, London. Photo: Marc Brenner Orlando Bloom in Killer Joe at Trafalgar Studios, London. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Fourteen years before he won the Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County, Tracy Letts made his playwriting debut with Killer Joe, a violent bite of Southern Gothic about a guy who hires a hitman to kill his mother for the insurance payout.

A quarter of a century later, while the playwright has gotten good, the play hasn’t. It’s nasty to a fault, and shocking for no other reason than to shock.

With Orlando Bloom in the lead as corrupt cop/contract killer Joe Cooper, Simon Evans’ production will obviously sell but, despite Bloom’s protestations, one thing is for sure: there is nothing remotely feminist, empowering or timely in watching a woman forced to simulate oral sex on a chicken leg in a production written and directed by men.

Even putting aside the play’s toxicity for the moment, under Evans all the acting is so painfully mannered that the cast forgets to be human, despite the pedigree of excellent actors such as Steffan Rhodri and Neve McIntosh.

Bloom is a charming guy, and he summons some of that charm here. There’s something very menacing about the vacant way he looks and his slow movements around the set, even if the stillness occasionally seems like a way to avoid having to show much range. He has a one-note way of speaking, almost rasping, but that monotony suits the character, something uncertain between charismatic and psychopathic. It’s just that the character is pointlessly loathsome.

Adam Gillen shows the most depth as desperate son Chris, but the straining, red-faced way he delivers his lines, contorting at each word, is way too much.

And a frenzied final scene is so slack that it’s only possible to focus on all the ways the actors are trying to avoid hitting each other.

Richard Howell’s lighting, big blocks of primary colours like the glare from a TV, is striking and sits well on Grace Smart’s detailed trailer set. That’s about it for the positives.

Perhaps 20 years ago, Letts might have been able to argue that there was a point to watching a 22-year-old virgin with learning difficulties being ordered by a man to strip slowly before he has sex with her. In the current climate, though, it hardly needs restating that there are nasty men out there, and they will manipulate and beat and rape women.

Besides, if the production wants to make that point, it needs to be much more certain of itself. Confused about whether it’s comic or not, farce or horror, its cast of grotesques, acted to their extremest edges, encourages laughter more often than revulsion. That’s a queasy directorial decision.

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Orlando Bloom stars in an irredeemably unpleasant revival of Tracy Letts' nasty play about a contract killer