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Posts Tagged ‘Joe Orton’

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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This early Alan Bennett play, 48 years old now, is rarely seen. I can only recall one London revival, by Sam Mendes at the Donmar twenty-five years ago, which I missed because the performance I’d booked was cancelled and I couldn’t make another, so it’s been a long wait, not just the eighteen month lockdown one.

It’s his most farcical play, which seems to me to be a send up of the form, without slamming doors, but with the trouser dropping. It’s more Joe Orton than Brian Rix, both of which pre-date it. It also has more than a touch of absurdism, and is partly in verse. A very odd concoction which I’m not sure has stood the test of time.

Dr Arthur Wicksteed is a GP with a roving eye. His son Dennis is desperate to lose his virginity and his sister Constance wants false breasts to bag her a better man than the Canon, her fiancee. His wife’s ex flame is Sir Percy Shorter, the President of the BMA, who’s here in their home town of Hove for a conference. Lady Rumpers and her daughter Felicity, back from their colonial adventures, turn up, though it’s a long time before you realise why. Add in the false breast salesman / fitter, a suicidal patient and the Wicksteed’s housekeeper Mrs Swabb, our ‘narrator’ – a brilliant performance from Ria Jones – shake & stir and you have a surreal take on the classic British farce of that time.

It’s all very well plotted and littered with good jokes. There’s a coffin centre stage, the purpose of which remains unclear, otherwise there are no props, so it zips along. The costumes are pitch perfect 70’s, and of course the soundtrack is to die for. Underneath all this there may be some messages, but if there are they get lost in the form. You can’t fault the performers, who make the best of every line and every situation, but it didn’t really work for me.

It’s a curiosity, and as a big Bennett fan I’m glad I went to see what he was up to in early career, but it’s easy to see why its taken 25 years to reappear on a London stage again.

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Shortly after I saw the 1984 revival of this play in the West End, Leonard Rossiter, who played Inspector Truscott, died in the wings waiting to go on. All very Ortonesque, but I do hope Christopher Fulford survives this run! It’s around fifty years since it’s premiere and playwright Joe Orton’s death at the hands of his partner Kenneth Halliwell. This excellent revival is a superb opportunity to see it again, or for Loot virgins to see it for the first time.

It’s set in a room in the McLeavy home, where the recently deceased Mrs McLeavy lies in her coffin while her husband and nurse mourn her. Her son Hal and his friend, junior undertaker Dennis, have robbed a bank. What follows is a farcical, manic, absurd and surreal caper revolving around them hiding the money. Originally mounted before censorship was scrapped, the Lord Chamberlain insisted on a number of cuts and changes, including a dummy for the deceased, but here a brilliant Anah Ruddin lies in, and is removed from the coffin, relocated and thrown around.

This is apparently the first time the uncensored script has been staged. I don’t know the play well enough to spot the differences, but there are parts that still shock today. It satirises the police and the catholic church and sends up all sorts of societal norms. Michael Femtiman’s fast-paced production never lets up, and the play sparkles more that it has done before. I loved Gabriella Slade’s glossy black set (though the high level stained glass windows are a bit of a puzzle given we’re in a room in a home the whole time). It’s an outstanding cast, with both Sam Frenchum and Calvin Demba terrific as the sexually ambiguous Hal & Dennis respectively. I sometimes find Sinead Matthews overacts, but she can let go here as the predatory nurse with a past. Christopher Fulford has brilliant timing as Inspector Truscott and Ian Redford a suitable put upon McLeavy.

Well worth catching.

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There’s a biography, a film and a play charting the relationship between playwright Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, but I never thought I’d see a musical. As it turns out, Richard Silver & Sean J Hume’s show proves better at showing the complexity of their relationship, as well as being an impressive small-scale musical.

It follows the pair from their first meeting at RADA in 1951 through to Orton’s murder by a by now psychotic Halliwell 16 years later. The unlikely relationship takes us through 50’s drama school life, their hermit-like existence in a small Islington flat, Orton’s promiscuity, imprisonment for defacing library books and North African holidays with Kenneth Williams through to success in the 60’s, when Orton overshadows Halliwell as he becomes a darling of the glitterati. It’s a fascinating story and here it’s entertainingly told, yet still manages to convey the psychological depth of the relationship and its tragic ending.

I thought both Richard Dawes and Andrew Rowney (who appears to have had his head shaved in the line of duty!) were outstanding as Orton and Halliwell respectively. Valerie Cutko was excellent as both of the contrasting older women in their lives – landlady Mrs Cordon and literary agent Peggy Ramsay – and there’s a terrific turn from Simon Kingsley as Kenneth Williams. In an excellent small ensemble, Katie Brennan stands out.

It’s a very good score, full of great tunes and sharp lyrics. The book doesn’t veer from the other forms, though there were a few new facts (to me), most notably that Terence Rattigan invested in the original production of Entertaining Mr Sloane. Director Tim McArthur has done well to make the show work in such a small space and his staging has great pace, using the six doors of Andrew Holton’s design to great effect.

A fine new British musical that’s about to close, but will hopefully turn up again.

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