It seems like the majority of people booking tickets to Trafalgar Studio’s Killer Joe are doing so either because they’ve seen the movie, or because of the genuine Hollywood A-lister in the title role. Whatever the reason, these audiences are in for a real treat, because Simon Evans directs trailer park Americana in all its unflinching glory.
Tracy Letts’ screenplay was based on his original 1993 play, so fans of the movie will see a fairly familiar production. The elaborate, though static set does mean differences, but the intimacy of Trafalgar Studios helps deliver a breathtaking gut punch of a performance that could never be achieved on the big screen.
Chris, a small time crook needs money fast if he wants to stay alive, so concocts a plan to murder his mother for the insurance. Not able to do the deed himself he calls upon ‘Killer Joe’, a cop with a sideline in hired hits to bump off the unseen character. The whole family are in on it, but they can’t raise the cash to pay the hitman up front, so Joe ‘takes’ Chris’s younger sister, Dottie as a kind of deposit. It all gets pretty dark and disturbing from there, with a fried chicken drumstick taking more of a starring role than decency should allow.
While the play resembles the film, Orlando Bloom does not imitate Matthew McConaughey. His Killer Joe feels more nuanced, opening up the field for Bloom to develop the character remarkably well. In the first half he sails dangerously close to being just too nice, but it makes that second act all the more shocking and unpredictable when the truly sadistic character comes through.
Orlando Bloom may be the star attraction, but it’s Adam Gillen and Sophie Cookson who give star performances as Chris and Dottie respectively. Cookson’s vulnerable and childlike Dottie gives credence to the fear we all feel from Joe, while Gillen boils over with a barely contained combination of fear and rage, it’s exhausting just watching his gutsy and passionate performance; all sweat, spit and sincerity.
Emily Dodds Productions, making a welcome return after last year’s successful Found season, along with Empire Street Productions have perhaps realised that this combination of screen to stage return, and a star with big credentials will introduce new audiences to the theatre, and that can only be a good thing. Yes, Killer Joe is an uncomfortable watch, a play that sits 25 years in the past with dark and disturbing themes, but to ignore this side of life exists is naive at best, this revealing and disquieting play truly has to be seen to be believed.