Loot

Loot (1965) overview

With his 1965 play Loot, Joe Orton ‘extended the boundaries of farce by taking it out of the bedroom and into the funeral parlour’, according to Michael Billington.

The play is a gleefully anarchic attack on hypocrisy, that of the Catholic Church and the British police. The character of Inspector Truscott is corrupt and easily bought, but no one comes out of Orton’s play clean.

Loot is set in London in 1965 and concerns the events surrounding the death and subsequent burial of the McLeavy family matriarch. A bank robbery has been committed by her son Hal and his friend/sometime boyfriend, Dennis; they need to find somewhere to stash the stolen money and decide her coffin is the best place to put it. This means that they need to find somewhere else to hide the body, and her corpse is dragged around the stage throughout the play.

Initially, they hide Mrs McLeavy in a cupboard, while her former nurse, Fay, proposes marriage to the newly widowed Mr McLeavy. Inspector Truscott arrives on the hunt for the money and claiming to be from the City Water Board. As the preparations for the funeral proceed, Dennis professes love for Fay. After she discovers the corpse, Hal agrees to give her a share of the loot if she will help them conceal the body – this time by disguising it as a dressmaker’s dummy.

Things heat up between Hal and Truscott. He thinks Fay is a killer – she’s had seven husbands – and accuses her of murdering Mrs McLeavy. When he realises that it will be impossible to prove, he tries to implicate her as an accessory to the bank robbery. By this time it has dawned on Mr McLeavy that his son is involved in foul play. He demands that the coffin be opened – revealing that the body is no longer there. When the stolen bank notes are discovered, Hal tries to bribe Truscott, who readily accepts. McLeavy threatens Truscott, but Truscott's partner, Meadows, arrests him. The remaining three are left in the house with the unburied corpse. It’s Fay who utters the famous closing line: ‘We must keep up appearances’.

Key productions of Loot

Loot opened in Cambridge in 1965 to fairly poor reviews and ripples of public outrage. Commentators have pointed out several problematic issues with the first production, from the stylised, monochrome set to the miscasting of Kenneth Williams, best known from the Carry On films, who resorted to slapstick humour in his role as Truscott.

Orton reworked the play substantially before its eventual London opening in 1966 to a much warmer critical reception. It was awarded the London Evening Standard award for Best Play of 1966.

Loot has been frequently revived, and debate has continued over the play’s staging. As for all of his work, Orton and his agent Peggy Ramsay insisted that Loot must be played with ‘absolute realism’, rather than for laughs.

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A close reading of Loot

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Emma Parker
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Gender and sexuality, 20th-century theatre, Exploring identity

Joe Orton was a working-class, gay playwright whose outrageous black comedies scandalised theatre audiences in the 1960s. Emma Parker examines Orton’s satire on social and sexual convention by showing how the opening of Loot establishes the play’s central themes and dramatic techniques.

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By the end of the 1950s, playwrights had gained new freedoms to represent homosexual characters and themes on the British stage. Greg Buzwell charts the impact of the Wolfenden Report and Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey on the Lord Chamberlain’s strict censorship policy.

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In these edited extracts from her memoir, Leonie Orton, sister of playwright Joe Orton, provides a vivid account of growing up in the Orton household in Leicester and her relationship with Joe.

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