It’s been a good few years for Tracy Letts. He’s won a Tony award for his role as George in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, enjoyed success as a senator in Homeland and with Pulitzer winning August: Osage County which was then taken to the golden screen and starred Meryl Streep and Sam Shepard, the former being nominated for an Academy Award for her role as Violet. Now, after a run at Edinburgh Fringe almost a decade ago, and a film starring Matthew McConaughey as the assassin, Killer Joe comes to the West End.
Orlando Bloom is in the titular role, as the detective of a small town in Dallas, Texas – more specifically, a trailer park. To call the Smiths a complicated family would be an understatement. There’s the idiotic and disaffected father Ansel (Steffan Rhodri) who is constantly watching TV, scheming stepmother Sharla (Neve McIntosh), innocent and virginal daughter Dottie (Sophie Cookson) and the clueless but admirably ambitious Chris (Adam Gillen). Driven to desperation by cruel circumstance, Chris dreams up an odious scheme, to have his mother killed by local hitman/town detective Killer Joe Cooper (Orlando Bloom) in order to claim her life insurance money, as his sister Dottie is the beneficiary. Sounds like a fool-proof plan, doesn’t it? No, of course not. Somewhat predictably, chaos ensues.
Grace Smart’s set design is nothing short of incredible. She captures the little nuances of an impoverished home with painful realism: years’ worth of dirt on the fridge, broken furniture and mismatched crockery. Paired with lighting by Richard Howell, a unique atmosphere is created, one in which the story of Killer Joe can unfold beautifully. Sound by Edward Lewis is equally stunning; particularly memorable is a rather violent scene juxtaposed to the cheerful chorus of The Turtles’ Happy Together, making for a scene that is delightfully horrific.
You don’t need me to tell you that Bloom is an accomplished actor, and he’s menacing enough as Joe Cooper, but he’s also incredibly pretty, and at the risk of being accused of some kind of discrimination, he just isn’t rough around the edges enough to make the misogynistic bent Copper as terrifying as he could be. His mid-Western sheriff routine is almost cheesy; when he strides in with his wide gait, I can practically hear the old standoff music whistling in the background. Cookson is virtuous and simple as Dottie; she’s seemingly oblivious to the evils of her surroundings, and her on-stage brother Chris is portrayed with a complexity and pain by Gillen.
Killer Joe is funny and thrilling and clever and violent, but ultimately it is just sad. Letts paints a picture of an extraordinarily complicated life, one that is often chalked down to group being ‘dumb’ or ‘poor’, drug addicts or alcoholics, ‘white trash’ across the pond, ‘chavs’ here. But of course, it can never be that black and white, and Killer Joe shows us just how one could be driven to such extremes through poverty. Or how, like Dottie and Chris, when they’ve never known anything else, and ultimately, how unfortunately cyclical this kind of life is. Gritty, compelling, and expertly staged, this family drama is haunting.
Killer Joe is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 18 August
Photo: Marc Brenner