Review: Killer Joe @ RWCMD

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Richard Burton Theatre Company – Killer Joe

Bute Theatre, Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama
Friday 2nd December 2016

*white trash spoilers follow*

The unbridled success of August: Osage Country has put Tracy Letts (who is in fact a man) on the international stage. This three hour long play is an outrageous account of a family in crisis, with many unresolved issues. The show coming to the National Theatre in London, was an important event, leading to a film version (it’s good, but the play is better).

Killer Joe is an earlier work by Letts and is much more of a shocker. This nastily little play is an important piece of American theatre and is a testament to the time it’s was written and it’s hefty relevance today. These characters could have easily been on Jerry Springer or written about in the tabloids.

The Smiths are your everyday American white trash family. In a plot to kill their divorced mother (we never see her), a horrendous tale of hit men, trailer parks and tuna casseroles ensue. This is not an easy watch and the stellar set by Sonya Plenefisch proves this. Set inside their trailer, we as an audience are sectioned off into two groups: we gaze at each long side of the trailer so we don’t miss a single action. The joy of the production design is that we see the disgust of the other audience on the other side: the frowns, the the dropping of mouths, the looking aways. This is what I saw.


As the son, Conor Pelan is Chris, perhaps the most sympathetic character of the lot. It’s an intense performance and is perfect for him, even if his Belfast accent occasionally emerges. His sister Dotti is a sort of addition to Steinbeck’s Lenny archetype. Performed here by Georgina Sadler, it’s a sensitive and heartfelt portrayal of a sincere role, bearing the brunt of her family’s disturbances (with fatal consequences). Charlie Cassen is their father Ansel, though he feels more like an older, bearded brother. He depicts Ansel’s incompetence and cowardice extremely well, though the betrayal at the end towards him is still heartbreaking.

The step mother, Sharla is tackled by Tenaya Berndsen. Her American accent flows and is perhaps more subtle, and the role is a delicious one to perform. The sharpness of Sharla comes from her approach to each of the family members and her final actions of play left many in shock. Finally, Patrick Elue is the title character, a cop who kills on the side. Filled with an ultra threatening presence and a great pacing in the tenser moments (the scene when they all dine at the table is unbearable), Elue brings buckets to the role.

There are many joys to be had in life…watching a women fellate a piece of KFC by force is not one of them. The shock of this piece comes from seeing all these awful things happen on stage, right in front of you.  The conclusion as well is very upsetting and not the ending an audience would strive for. It’s best to see it, as a review would only account importance plot twists and spoilers that should be seen afresh.

The production directed by Debbie Hannan handles the material carefully and isn’t afraid to shy away from the shock of the Smith’s actions. The hindsight of her staging has an old TV set with Monster truck derbies, Looney Toons and Trump on the Oprah Winfrey Show, saying he would never run for president. These don’t date the show too much, as the themes have stagnated well into the new Millennium.

Good theatre has you thinking about it for days later. Killer Joe has done this to me and has triggered me wonderfully.

An absolute must see.

Joyously trashy & downright disturbing. 

Rating: 5 stars

Killer Joe continues at the RWCMD till 10th December 2016. Also showing this week is Blindsided by Simon Stephens and Shakespeare’s The Two Gentleman of Verona.


Review: Everyman Theatre – A Day in the Death of Joe Egg @ Chapter

Review: Focus on Messiaen: Between Heaven & the Clouds – Day #1 @ RWCMD

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