There can’t be many scenes involving crumpet-toasting in the canon of British theatre. But, judging by the one in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, there should be more of them. It is just one comic highlight in Nick Bagnall’s production which mines Orton’s black comedy to the hilt.
The crumpet scene takes place on the stage of Trafalgar Studio 1, which has been converted by designer Peter McKintosh into a downtrodden 1950s living room, with orange-flocked, peeling wallpaper, a faded sofa and a three-bar electric fire. It is owned by Kath, a middle-aged, dowdy and poignantly desperate woman who has been starved of affection for most of her life. When an attractive man half her age – the titular Mr Sloane – takes up her offer to lodge in her spare room, Kath, fuelled by Oedipal longings, promptly throws herself at him.
Then there is Ed, Kath’s draconian brother, who treats his sister like a naughty girl to be scolded and patronised. Blatantly closeted, Ed is also attracted to Sloane, and attempts to snare him for himself. The third member of this dysfunctional household is Kemp, the siblings’ father, who is dominated by both his children and yet is the only one to see another side to the mysterious Sloane.
Orton’s characters are richly-drawn; though highly comic, there is a sadness underlying them all, trapped as they are in a situation that is both pitiful and hilarious. Richard Bremmer’s Kemp, for example, is tall, thin, pale and doddery, looking half-dead and treated as such by his children. Yet the joy of the crumpet-toasting scene lies entirely in his shaking hands.
The equally tall Simon Paisley Day is well-cast as Ed, looking like a younger version of Bremmer but with the dominant presence that the older character has lost. Uptight and pompous, Ed twitches with suppressed desire for Sloane, and bleats when he makes a joke, to the amusement of the first night audience.
The production is, however, hung on the casting of Imelda Staunton, who displays perfect comic timing as Kath. The epitome of desperation, she simmers with lust for Mathew Horne’s roguishly cocky Sloane as though relishing an ice cream on a baking hot day. Much humour comes from the stark contrast between her fawning behaviour towards Sloane and her dismissive treatment of her father. As Kath’s cringeworthy attempts to seduce Sloane become ever more brazen, it is clear quite how brave Staunton will be in the service of her art.
The Lord Chamberlain demanded Orton’s play be edited of certain words when it was first produced in 1964. Though the censored words no longer have the shock factor they may have had when it was first written, Entertaining Mr Sloane remains a deliciously dark, innuendo-laden piece of high comedy centring on a set of characters who, thanks to their painful dysfunction, are most entertaining indeed.