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Posts Tagged ‘George Kemp’

When you go to the revival of a play that once shocked, you usually wonder why. What shocked in the past rarely shocks as much as time passes. Not in this case. John Lahr’s virtually verbatim 1986 play based on Joe Orton’s diaries, which Lahr had only just edited and published, displays behaviour and attitudes, like under-age sex, we find completely unacceptable in 2002.

I was familiar with the 1987 film and 2009 stage play based on Lahr’s 1987 biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, the former adapted by Alan Bennett and the latter by Simon Bent, but I didn’t even know this earlier stage work based on the diaries themselves existed. It apparently started as a 45 minute NT early evening ‘platform’ performance, was almost immediately expanded into a complete play at the Kings Head Theatre and then transferred to the suitably seedy Boulevard Theatre, but hasn’t been seen in London in the 36 years since.

Orton was a working class boy from Leicester who got into RADA in 1951, even more of an achievement then than now given his background. There he met Kenneth Halliwell, with whom he had a complicated relationship. Sixteen years later Halliwell murdered him, then took his own life. They lived in Halliwell’s Islington bedsit the whole of that time, even after Orton had made significant money. Halliwell was a source of ideas for his work, his partner and lover, but Orton was never faithful and Halliwell often felt confused and rejected by him.

Joe’s short playwriting career is based on just two full evening stage plays produced in his lifetime – Educating Mr Sloane & Loot, works which combined irreverence, cynicism and absurdity to great comic effect, a highly original voice. There were other pieces, produced and un-produced, including radio and TV plays, a few one-act plays and a screenplay for The Beatles, and another major play, What the Butler Saw, produced posthumously.

This is a real insight into Orton and Halliwell, perhaps the first example of verbatim theatre, though only one voice. Nico Rao Pimpare’s production zips along but has much depth, packing a lot into less than two hours playing time. George Kemp captures the cheeky irreverent charm of Orton whilst Toby Osmond conveys the emotional complexity of Halliwell, both excellent. There are forty-six other characters, including agent Peggy Ramsey, Kenneth’s Williams & Cranham, Paul McCartney & Brian Epstein, their neighbours and Orton’s relatives, all played by just four actors – Jemma Churchill, Jamie Zubairi, Sorcha Kennedy and Ryan Rajan Mal – in a dazzling display of quick-fire role switching.

A very welcome revival that proves to be a fascinating evening.

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I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to catch up with this, but I’m very glad I did so in its last week. Of all the excellent commemorations of the centenary of the First World War, this seems to me the most human and the most personal, a play based on a true story of some extraordinary men, which both entertained and moved me.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman uncovered the story of a satirical newspaper published in the trenches. Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson, when they are shown a working printer by one of their men, decide to produce something that would raise morale amongst the troops and provide some intellectual stimulation for them. They appear to have got away with it because at least one senior officer saw the potentially positive impact on morale, whilst others saw it as insubordinate, disruptive and potentially mutinous. Its satire targeted the officer class as well as the Germans, the French and the war itself. They managed to produce 23 issues over a two year period, despite moving location and losing the first printer, and news of it got back to blighty.

The story is framed by a post-war scene back in London, but the rest takes place in the trenches and nearby towns in an excellent evocative design by Dora Schweitzer, very well lit by James Smith, with an excellent soundscape by Steve Mayo . There are lots of short scenes, with the changes between them animated by songs of the war. It’s punctuated by comic cameos which pop up behind, and music hall turns stage front. I really liked this combination in Caroline Leslie’s fast-paced staging, which successfully blended the humour, the engaging story of the newspaper and the horrors of life in the trenches. I found myself both laughing out loud and welling up. It’s superbly performed by a cast of ten, three of whom each play three roles, led by James Dutton and George Kemp as Roberts and Pearson.

A very respectful tale of defiance and determination, which brings the story of these extraordinary men the posthumous public attention that is long overdue.

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