THEATRE / A killer on the loose

Killer Joe - The Bush Theatre, London
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One of the many tellingly hilarious moments in Tracy Letts's Killer Joe at the Bush comes at the point where the eponymous assassin - hired by the ex-husband and son of the prospective victim so that they can clean up on her life insurance - backsout of the deal because they can't give him any money up front. He drops a loaded hint, though, that he might be prepared to accept sexual access to the daughter of the house (or rather of the trailer) as a "retainer". After he has departed, there's an awkward silence, broken when Marc A Nelson's beer-bellied father yells, "God damn it!". A cry of outrage? A wail of sorely tried paternal conscience? Not a bit of it, for it becomes clear as he irritably fiddles with theaerials on his portable set that this television junkie is capable, even at life-in-the-balance moments such as this, of being principally pre-occupied by the quality of the television reception.

Without ever becoming predictable, Killer Joe, which is set in a Texas trailer park, false-foots several times in like manner, creating a kind of outraged delight at the inverted values of this white-trash middle America where television is the fast food, indeed the only food, of the soul. Like some Ben-Jonson-meets-Sam-Shepard collision, the play artfully causes you to lose your moral bearings. Yes, it's frightful for a youth to say of his own mother, "look at it this way, is she doin' anybody any good?" But then, what kind of mother steals cocaine (to resell for her own profit) from a drug-dealer son when he's on the run from creditors? The play is full of such droll, six-joke short-circuiting, the most egregious one being that the cutely dimpled hired killer (Eric Winzenried) is also a high-ranking member of the Texas police force. You'd have to report him to himself.

In Wilson Milam's perfectly pitched Hired Gun Theatre Company production, the excellent cast put their finger on the play's laconic pulse and pull you into these people's sly, occluded brains and churning guts. What is admirable about the comedy is the way it manages to keep faith with a morality inaccessible to its characters while refusing to have truck with political correctness. For example, it dramatises the growing guilt of the son (Mike Shannon) who has since childhood been the protector in this loveless family of his slightly arrested sister (Shawna Franks). But when he tries to rescue her from the clutches of the killer, it becomes clear that she's decided that Joe is her liberation, and it's one of the production's achievements (via an oddly tender, kinky seduction scene) to make that unsavoury option seem quite plausible.

The idea, put about in America, that the play is misogynist doesn't survive the experience of watching it. At the start of the second half we hear on the radio some awful born-again Bible-basher inveighing against the evils of women assuming power. But while this broadcast gives you the sordid cultural context of the killer's later brutal humiliation of the stepmother (Holly Wantuch), it does not endorse his action. Letts's career is clearly one to watch.

For performance times and booking details of `Killer Joe' see listings below