How amazing it is to think that only 40 years ago, Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane was causing outrage and offence, and testing the patience of the Lord Chamberlain's blue pencil. Today the piece seems wonderfully dated, drifting from zeitgeist classic to "Carry On" innuendo, as Orton tried to expose the truth about an era of enormous change and sexual revolution that the authorities continually wished to suppress from being represented on stage.
The arrival of Mr Sloane (Neil Stuke) as the new lodger in Kath's (Alison Steadman) home acts as the catalyst for a series of emotional and physical disasters as Kath and her brother Ed (Clive Francis) both tussle for the affection and attention of Mr Sloane. However, the apparent innocence of Mr Sloane is slowly revealed as deception, as the truth about his murderous past is revealed by Kath's father, Kemp (Bryan Pringle). Alison Steadman's portrayal of Kath is wonderful as she slips from her true self, a rejected woman who has never recovered emotionally from having to give up a child she had out of wedlock, to the dominatrix landlady; a transformation that is marvellously illustrated by the affected middle class accent or the Mummsie tones she adopts when addressing Mr Sloane. Whilst the first act focuses on the seduction of Mr Sloane by Kath, the second sees her brother come into his own as he exerts ever greater influence over Mr Sloane in his new role as Ed's chauffeur, dressed as Ed's fantasy in camp leather. Although Sloane ultimately, and tragically shatters all their lives (including his own), the brother and sister very quickly recover from the disaster that has befallen them, dividing Sloane between them and simply covering up the murder that has occurred in the house - appearance is so much more important than reality to these people.
But despite the ultimately tragic outcome, this is a production that is hugely entertaining - the strong acting and interpretation by the whole ensemble ensures the fast pace is maintained, and the farce remains relentless. And it is through the comedy, that Orton continually jabs at 1960s society. Mr Sloane's disgust at the exaggerated respect that exists for the elderly, the attempt by Kath to keep up appearances despite all she has been through, and Ed's yin and yang existence, all serve to represent the hypocrisy of reality and appearance that Orton abhored.
This production at the Arts Theatre (where, incidentally, the original production was first staged), beautifully captures the suppressed desires of the period. The mixture of farce and black comedy borders on the tragic as the family's tense but comfortable existence is replaced by the trauma brought about by the arrival of Mr Sloane. Does the play still achieve Orton's aims of the 1960s? No - yet it now serves an equally valuable purpose, reminding us just how far we have come since his days, and entertaining all the while.
SHERIDAN MORLEY for TELETEXT says, "Entertaining Mr Sloane is one of the funniest comedies you are likely to see on stage this year." GERALD BERKOWITZ for THE STAGE says "..the strong cast searches out and delivers all the laughs and all the outrageousness." He goes on to say "Alison Steadman particularly shines.." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "This tame Mr Sloane can still surprise and delight." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Joe Orton's Mr Sloane can still entertain." JOHN PETER for THE SUNDAY TIMES says, "This production is a treat". MICHAEL BILLINGTON says, "Orton still entertains and shocks." RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT was more luke-warm saying, "With Steadman's and Francis's unconnected comic turns, the play lacks the poignancy that lies behind their behaving like greedy children." And CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH doesn't like the play at all saying, "The blunt, uncomfortabe fact is that it simply isn't funny enough." He goes on to say, " The comedy is tediously static, and initial delight at Orton's cheek gradually gives way to tedium."