All Killer, No Filler

By Ian Shuttleworth

Joe Cooper, a police detective who moonlights as a contract killer, basks in his power: the badge, the gun, the blackmail and the sexual command of 20-year-old Dottie, whom the Smith family have pimped out to him as a ‘retainer’ until the insurance money comes through after his hit on Ansel Smith’s ex-wife. Killer Joe oozes the chilling control of one of those characters who suddenly arrive and take over in a Harold Pinter play, except that the Smiths are Texans who are beyond trailer trash and more like trailer landfill. The insurance-murder scheme is such a classic scam, the Smith men so stupid in falling for it, the play could be called dumbbell indemnity.

Joe, meanwhile, doesn’t quite strut, but he damn near preens, and every time he stops moving he doesn’t so much stand as strike a stance. It’s as if Orlando Bloom is discreetly taking the mickey out of his status as cinematic eye-candy in the Tolkien and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. In Simon Evans's revival of Tracy Letts’s 1993 debut play, it works a treat.

Bloom doesn’t have much form as a stage actor so far – this is only his third appearance – but the indications are that, given the chance, he’s impressive. Now, let’s face it, this is not relaxing viewing. There’s an unsettling scene where, even though he doesn’t look, Joe is psychologically abusing Dottie as he orders her to strip and change clothes, and another in which he forces her stepmother to mock-fellate a chicken drumstick. But it’s not gratuitous: Letts knows what he’s doing in showing the twisted shapes that power, family bonds and southern-states Christianity can torque into.

Steffan Rhodri and Adam Gillen are also impressive as Ansel Smith and son Chris. Despite what I said before about Letts’s writing being so deliberate, Dottie is almost a holy fool of a plot device, and so it’s much to Sophie Cookson’s credit that she finds a full character in the girl.

The most serious fault isn’t in the play; it’s that Evans' production is often way too big for even such tense, violent events. and that’s not his or the cast’s fault, either – it’s the theatre. Trafalgar Studio 1 has fewer than 400 seats, but they’re piled so steeply and create such an impression of distance that, in row k, I felt as if I were watching goings-on from a rooftop in a neighbouring postal district. Actors have to give it the welly required for a space seating three times as many, and all too often that simply explodes the play. Kudos to Evans and company, and especially to Bloom, for just about keeping it all in one piece.

Runs until 18 August in Trafalgar Studios, London SW1, 0844-871 7632, www.atgtickets.com

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