Tracy Letts’ early play Killer Joe is about life in a trailer park. Yes, all the characters are white trash and there is a prodigious amount of violence but there is also serious playwriting. I like to think of the play as violence and gore for the intelligent person. Maybe.
The play opens with a young woman climbing to the roof of a trailer using a rope ladder. There is a thunderclap of music and the lights go out leaving the young woman mysteriously standing atop the trailer. The play continues with Chris (Adam Gillen) frantically knocking on the door to be let into the trailer so he can urinate.
From left: Adam Gillen and Steffan Rhodri in Killer Joe. Photo Marc Brenner
The plot of Killer Joe can hardly be more melodramatic. Chris, a teenager, is desperate for money to pay his drug dealer who will kill him if he does not. He convinces his father Ansel (Steffan Rhodri) to let him hire Killer Joe (James Groom) to kill his mother so that Chris, his sister Dottie and Ansel can collect on her life insurance policy. Agreed.
We meet Killer Joe who comes to close the deal for his next job. He is usually played by star-power Orlando Bloom who was indisposed the day I saw the production. Cold-blooded killers are a frequent occurrence in movies and on television but this man goes over the top. He is a complete professional with good manners and a few rules. He gets paid $25,000 up front and he demands obedience. The violence within him is terrifying because it is hidden beneath a veneer of good manners. Groom’s performance is simply stellar.
Chris and Ansel have no money but Joe is willing to make an exception and take a retainer – Dottie (Sophie Cookson). Dottie is attractive but not all there but that does not deter Joe from proceeding to have sexual relations with her. Joe fulfills his end of the bargain and I will say nothing about the rest of the plot for fear of spoiling it for you.
The words trailer trash barely begin to describe all of the people in the play. The door in the opening scene is answered by Sharla (Neve McIntosh), Ansel’s girlfriend, who is wearing nothing below the waist and does not see anything wrong with her appearance. Chris is shocked.
With the possible exception of Dottie, these people are the scum of the earth who live like pigs. Gillen as Chris is frantic throughout the play because he is living in terror of being wiped out any moment. Ansel is a doormat but a filthy one who is capable of violence. Sharla is just trash.
The play makes considerable demands on the actors. The seething evil in the eyes and actions of Killer Joes, the terror suffered by Chris and his outbursts of violence, the furor of Ansel and Sharla test the mettle of all of them and the audience remains agog at what is happening. All five give stupendous performances.
Director Simon Evans gives us a taut, disciplined production that is all the more effective for its embrace of the trailer park atmosphere and the violent life of its inhabitants.
The single set by Grace Smart shows the kitchen and living room of the trailer and it is perfectly suitable.
The final tableau of the play leaves the plot perhaps where the play began. But one cannot be sure. It is partially the director’s choice to leave us wondering.
___________Killer Joe by Tracy Letts continues until August 18, 2018 at Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2DY. www.trafalgarentertainment.com/