Killer Joe is the first play by award winning American playwright Tracy Letts who went on to write the huge hit August: Osage County. Like any artist, it’s always fascinating to see their early work, to perhaps get a glimmer of what they are capable of or an indication of what they will go on to be.
Unfortunately, I spent a large part of this grubby night of theatre hoping to un-see what I did see, and wondering why on Earth this was chosen as a star vehicle for Hollywood star Orlando Bloom in the title role.
Chris is in trouble and owes money to the wrong people. He hires Killer Joe Cooper to bump off his step-mum in order to gain her life insurance money. Unfortunately, Killer Joe asks for an upfront fee that Chris and his trailer trash family can’t afford. Instead, Killer Joe asks for a retainer in the form of Chris’s brain-damaged sister Dottie. She is used as a bargaining chip without a second thought and passed on to Killer Joe.
In the current climate of #metoo and #timesup it is nothing short of depressing how someone thought putting on this play was a good idea. Plays should always have the right to be performed however uncomfortable the subject – however this is a play written by a man, directed by a man where woman are degraded and shockingly humiliated by men. Really?
To watch the brain-damaged, shivering Dottie forced to strip completely, or new Mother figure Sharla forced to perform fellatio on a chicken drumstick before choking on it, all for male amusement, is horrific. I’d like to say the production is subverting this toxic masculinity to make a point but the show is simply not that sophisticated.
Orlando Bloom as Killer Joe lacks the terrifying coldness to play this chilling psychopath. His bum-shot has received a lot of attention, but it is fleeting, whereas the female nudity is of course drawn out and fully exploited to the max. He gets better in the second half but ultimately the performance is a wealth of missed opportunities.
Adam Gillen as Chris gives a big performance in every way but it is at odds with everybody else on stage. The only bright light in all of this is Sophie Cookson as Dottie Smith. She somehow manages to rise above it all with grace and dignity which is no mean feat and gives a sensitive, touching and nuanced performance.
Killer Joe plays at Trafalgar Studios until 18 August