Entertaining Mr Sloane, a satire from 1964, pits a status-obsessed brother, Ed (Tomás Sergeant), against his lonely, housewife sister, Kath (Maisie Lambert), in their common pursuit of the smooth, muscular Sloane (Am Wyckoff), a young ruffian looking for a room. The entire play takes place in the house where Kath lives with her father, Kemp (Eric Balonwu), who is old, grumpy, and, eventually, murdered. Kath’s Freudian, mothering lust is pitted against Ed’s sleazy, predatory charm, but in the end they both come out on top (of Sloane).Yet what Orton said he ‘wanted to do in Sloane was to break down all the sexual compartments that people have’ and complained that “when Sloane had been running for a while, it had got into compartments, so that Madge (Ryan) was the nympho, Peter (Vaughan) was the queer and Dudley (Sutton) was the psycho.” Orton’s mastery is not to reduce these characters to various neuroses, but rather to offer moral emptiness and a biting indictment of respectability across the board. Brook’s production moved between playing the world for laughs and playing it real enough that the audience was left with lingering unease.
Maisie Lambert as Kath was superb, shifting between bullying daughter, smothering mother, and horny housewife by turn – though the bellowing offstage was ferocious in the round. Tomás Sergeant’s Ed had a repressed, careful sleaze which balanced perfectly with Lambert, but could occasionally have played up his breathless delight at Sloane’s weightlifting habits. Eric Balonwu’s Kemp was suitably the ‘straight man’; morally mediocre rather than excessively perverse and punished for it. Sloane’s character is a difficult one: Dudley Sutton, the first actor to take the role, described Sloane as a ‘lumpen’, a ‘nothing’ concerned only with serving himself. Am Wyckoff’s rendition was reptilian and threatening. The joy of Orton is to see the perverse presented as if it were the normal, like an epigram that sounds familiar but upturns and satirises common wisdom. As Orton said, there must be with ‘no attempt in fact to match the author’s extravagance of dialogue with extravagance of direction’. In Sloane’s climactic monologue, the directorial decision to have Sloane crouched and gesticulating wildly atop a chair went somewhat to extravagance. Still, it was exciting.
The first two acts were played back-to-back, marked in the script by a time jump from Sloane’s introduction to the household to ‘some months later’. Brook added a dumb show to cover the months between. Colourful lights lit the stage and loud music blared whilst the actors played a silent melodramatic charade: Sloane kicking Kemp’s chair, Ed coming to speak to Kemp, and Kath and Ed ducking behind Sloane’s back to kiss each other. These mimes felt like an incongruous addition to Orton’s heavily verbal play. The third act featured Orton’s slow reveal of the collusion of all the remaining characters following their base instincts of greed, lust, and self-preservation. It was wonderful. The play ended with Lambert and Sergeant negotiating their ‘partnership’ in a mockery and perversion of the various nuclear family roles. It was a masterful third act, and the audience looked impressed.
Orton is one of Britain’s finest playwrights. His work catches the audience unaware with syntax that sounds familiar and then punches them with revelations of greed, sleaze, and selfishness beneath the theatre of respectability. Modern critics have tried to interpret him as a forerunner of sexual liberation; I prefer to see him as satirising public performances of morality that is privately lacking. An Exciting New’s production staged him admirably, and it was a joy to see.