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By Tracy Letts
Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
There's a fine line between dirty and just sleazy and Simon Evans' revival of this early play by Tracy Letts crosses it. When it was first seen in the London in 1995 it was a gloriously brash, grotesque, black comedy about Texan trailer folk, the kind who don't normally get much stage time. Letts allowed us to wallow in their sheer offensiveness and utter expediency. These are the folk the American Dream forgot. Its tone was Coen Brothers mixed with Joe Orton.
A key scene involving our anti-hero Killer Joe seducing a teenage girl, who he has basically been traded, was offputting, yes, but also oddly tender, in the original. Here it's merely sleazy. Evans takes the play and judges the characters.
Movie star Orlando Bloom, the raison d'etre for this production, is oddly miscast as the crooked cop with a neat sideline as a hitman. He is far too much the matinee idol for this and it destabilises the piece. Being so familiar with this milieu from US TV it's also a struggle for a British cast to convince, and here the accents really wobble.
The eponymous hitman has been hired by the ex-husband and son of the prospective victim so that they can clean up on her life insurance. Leading this cabal is Chris, the son of the family, an overwrought, inept, drug dealer who stumbles from one disaster to the next, collecting various scars and bruises along the way. Adam Gillen goes high octane with him from the outset and there is nowhere left to go.
Steffan Rhodri is on steadier ground as the slob of a father who is more preoccupied by the quality of his television reception than his family's struggles. Neve McIntosh provides strong support as his brassy girlfriend and undergoes a number of indignities including fellating a KFC chicken wing which Joe holds to his crotch in a really disturbing scene of humiliation. Sophie Cookson perfectly captures the mixture of innocence and experience which defines the teenage Hattie, who is a pawn in the game.
In the era of #MeToo the nudity and the representation of violence against the women needs a deftness of touch which it doesn't really get here. Neither does having Orlando, very briefly, flash his gym toned bum, balance the treatment meted out to the women. It misses the point.
Likewise the gory finale, like something out of Ben Jonson, is played for laughs and in slo-mo, to a pop soundtrack. Again he undercuts what Letts is trying to do and reduces this to a snigger about how awful these "trailer trash" folk are. This was an exercise in American Gothic and Letts went on to write the masterful August Osage County and Bug. Nobody today writes dialogue like him and this does him no service.
Design elements are top notch however. Grace Smart's grungy trailer couldn't be more perfectly realised and Edward Lewis' sound design, including great TV and radio excerpts, grounds us on a Texan plain with its big skies and extreme weather.