Arts: Theatre: Bent on the boys in blue

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The Independent Culture
"YOUR SENSE of detachment is terrifying, lad," marvelled a police inspector in Joe Orton's Loot. "Most people would at least flinch upon seeing their mother's eyes and teeth handed round like nuts at Christmas."

Orton's own sense of detachment was pretty awesome, too. A stint in prison had given him the gift of being able to view from a distance society as a hypocritical madhouse. The resulting serene ruthlessness in his approach is what energises this 1966 farce.

Taking its epigraph from Shaw, "Anarchism is a game at which the police can beat you", the play steers a psychopathically corrupt copper into the mourning home of the Catholic McLeavys where the mother's corpse has just been unceremoniously dumped from its coffin to make way for stolen money. Before the end, her remains find themselves subjected to all manner of indignity.

David Grindley's highly entertaining production takes the proceedings at a spirited lick. The combination of intricate farce, plotting, and wordy mock-Wildean epigrams can sometimes leave actors looking as though they've been ordered to run a race while attempting to balance a precarious pile of bone china. But here the cast manage to deliver the dialogue with the right arch stylishness and maintain pace. They do it even at those tricky moments when there's such an escalation of laugh lines, some seem fated to drown in the audience response.

The hilarious rat-a-tat exchanges about "the limbless girl killer", ending in the inspector's pompous refusal to reveal how she could kill if she was limbless - "we don't want a carbon-copy murder on our hands" - is a plethora of pay-off and expertly timed.

Even after the play proper has ended, Fred Ridgeway's excellent Inspector Truscott can't resist poking his head through the theatre curtains - still taut with bulgy-eyed crackpot suspicion. A goldfish in a bowl has more overall conception of what it is up to than this bent, violent guardian of law and order as he shoots along wildly divergent lines of investigation, claiming to be from the Metropolitan Water Board.

When Orton accepted the Evening Standard Best Play Award, he joked that Scotland Yard had snapped up the complementary tickets they'd been sent and that the police loved Loot because, while the public thought it was a fantasy, the boys in blue knew it to be accurate. Since then, many cases of corruption have borne out that view, but Orton's play remains undated in the savage cartoon clarity with which it captures the moral outrageousness of this state of affairs. "Under any other political system, I'd have you on the floor in tears," roars Truscott, with magnificent disregard for the state of his victims. "I am on the floor in tears," responds Gary Whitaker's boyishly amoral Hal.

Ridgeway could perhaps afford to transmit more of a sense of danger. That's not a criticism you'd want to make of Tracy-Ann Oberman's superb Fay, the literally fatale nurse who has seen off seven husbands. Wiggling about in a manner that's simultaneously like a severe religious reprimand and sexual come-on, she magnificently combines strict disciplinarian and sinister seductress. When they are held by her, you begin to see distinct bondage possibilities in a string of rosary beads.

A pity that the corpse looks throughout like a prop rather than a former person. But, on most counts, this wittily designed and casted Loot is the goods.

Runs to October 17 (0171-836 9987)