“Orlando Bloom’s mesmerising performance”
The classiest guy in this Texas-set thriller is Orlando Bloom’s menacing Joe. He’s a cop who, from his Stetson to his cowboy boots, is more bent than a coat hanger, and who hires himself out to those who want someone dead and can pay 25,000 bucks.
The other men here are what might be called trash. Drug dealer Chris (Adam Gillen) and his dad Ansel (Steffan Rhodri) hire Joe to murder Chris’s mother, also Ansel’s ex. The plan is to collect the life insurance after it goes to Chris’s young sister Dottie (Kingsman’s Sophie Cookson) who is happy to see her mother murdered because of the time she tried to smother her as a baby.
Now, since Tracy Letts wrote his violent 1993 play — later a movie starring Matthew McConaughey — linking the word ‘trash’ to a kind of abode is seen as offensive. But there is no avoiding the fact that this particular family reside in a trailer. And what Letts’s pitch-black comedy reveals is that for some families trapped in this poverty pit, depravity has become their normal.
Chris’s stepmom Sharla (Shetland’s Neve McIntosh) is the kind of woman who answers the door nude. Bloom fans also get an eyeful when his Joe, who has installed himself in Dottie’s bed as part down payment for the murder, confronts an intruder butt naked (to the delight of Bloom’s girlfriend Katy Perry who posted her admiration for the Pirates Of The Caribbean star’s cheeks on social media during a preview performance).
And as if to underline the lack of etiquette, there’s a hilarious moment when Joe wants to make a speech and tries to attract attention by tapping his polystyrene cup with his plastic fork.
Yet what shocks is the calm with which children and their father discuss murdering their mother.
Simon Evans’s gripping production never quite expunges doubt that this slice of social deprivation is intended to entertain rather than prick social consciences. But the excellent Bloom is full of menace, and the question as to whether the sheer matinee-idol prettiness of this star prevents him from convincing in such an ugly role, is well answered.
“Unnerving and darkly comic”
Even with a big movie star, Orlando Bloom, in the title role, it is a risky move to revive Tracy Letts’s 1993 play right now. This, after all, is a work that, aside from its grisly violence, involves the explicit seduction of a 20-year-old woman and forces her stepmother into an act of mock fellatio with a chicken leg. But I would absolve Letts, who went on to write August: Osage County, from the charge of exploitation in that he is clearly making a serious point about a society caught between a dimly remembered Christian morality and an all-too-vivid cultural degeneration.
However uncomfortable the play makes you, Letts keeps you hooked from the outset. A visibly deranged young guy, Chris, bursts into the Texan trailer home occupied by his dad, his stepmother and his sister. Since Chris is heavily in debt to the mob, presumably over a failed drug deal, he has a simple proposal. He suggests to his dad, Ansel, that they hire a hitman to bump off the old man’s first wife and divvy up the insurance claim of which Chris’s sister, Dottie, is the beneficiary. There’s only one problem: they don’t have any money and when they finally meet the contract killer, Joe Cooper, he demands a substantial down payment in the form of Dottie.
On one level, Letts’s play is like a blackly comic parody of a whole raft of family dramas. I was reminded of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming in the readiness of these Texans to use Dottie as a bargaining chip, of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child in the portrait of a grotesquely dysfunctional family and even of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie: the scene in which Joe comes to pay court to the shyly virginal Dottie has echoes of the gentleman caller’s encounter with Williams’s nervy Laura Wingfield.
That last scene confirms my belief that Letts’s characters all exist in some strange half-world. Bloom excellently suggests Joe’s cool confidence, exaggerated politesse and head for business. He exudes easiness, style and restrained swagger, yet Bloom never lets you forget that Joe is a hired killer who also happens to be a ruthless policeman. The family, who say grace before dinner, are also torn between an ethical past and a debased present in which their values are dictated by an endless diet of TV cop shows such as Cannon and Mannix. Without being preachy, Letts’s play is, among other things, an attack on a popular culture that distorts people’s sense of reality.
I admit to feeling uneasy at the play’s use of female nudity – though, possibly in the interests of gender equality, we also get to see Bloom’s bare bottom – and Simon Evans’s production overplays the atmospheric thunder and lightning and undercooks the comedy. It is, however, extremely well-acted. Sophie Cookson admirably suggests that Dottie’s seeming simplicity conceals a sharp-eyed awareness, Adam Gillen captures her brother’s borderline hysteria born out of a thwarted incestuous passion while Steffan Rhodri as their father and Neve McIntosh as their stepmother nicely mix the dim and the deceitful.
Cleverly plotted and queasily gripping, Letts’s play offers a prophetic portrait of a society that, in its reliance on the small screen, is in danger of entertaining itself to death.
“Interesting and compelling”
Killer Joe is certainly not a show for the faint-hearted. It tells the story of the Smith family, who live on a trailer park and have some serious money issues. Following some questionable decisions, they conspire to murder the estranged matriarch of the family to receive her insurance payout. They hire Joe Cooper, a local detective moonlighting as a part-time contract killer, to do the job. The half-baked plan inevitably goes wrong, leading to some unsavoury consequences.
Star of the show is, of course, Orlando Bloom playing the titular Killer Joe Cooper. Cool, calm and considered in all his movements and deliberations, he contrasts perfectly with the chaotic, noisy Smith family. The other members of the cast all put in strong performances, too – the acting is highly accomplished throughout. Of particular note, we appreciated the mysterious and multi-layered Dottie, played by Sophie Cookson.
The subject matter and its portrayal may not be to all tastes and Killer Joe is certainly difficult to watch at times. It explores some challenging moral dilemmas and features some extremely graphic scenes of a sexual nature – we’re not sure we’ll look at a KFC bucket the same way ever again. One scene we found particularly unsettling involved the clearly young and vulnerable Dottie being seduced, quite against her will, by a calculating and controlling Joe. It made for rather unpleasant viewing, but at the same time it was also incredibly gripping.
While it’s undoubtedly a heavy story line, there is a lot of humour here, although it’s exclusively dark comedy – there is nothing lighthearted or slapstick about this production. There are, however, dozens of witty lines that had the audience cackling – it certainly balances out a text that could so easily be relentlessly bleak.
Killer Joe won’t appeal to everyone and it’s certainly a challenging piece of theatre. There are plenty of disconcerting moments and some of the moral questions it raises are difficult. It is, however, an interesting and compelling play with a healthy dose of humour, featuring a commanding performance from Orlando Bloom and a talented supporting cast.
“Psychological food for thought”
"Bloom in full sinister command of the stage"
“The right sort of shiver”