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Posts Tagged ‘Seven Dials Playhouse’

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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Opening a new theatre after the worst two years in theatre history is brave indeed. Seven Dials Playhouse has risen, metaphorically, from the ashes of Tristan Bates Theatre, and it’s good to report that it gets off to an excellent start with this European premiere of Mark Gerrard’s 2015 off-Broadway hit.

Designer Lee Newby has built a replica of Joe Allen’s New York theatre-land restaurant which doubles up as a Starbucks and other locations. Dick Straker & Barbara Senoltova’s projections into photo and window frames are particularly clever and there’s even a revolve! MD Ben Papworth plays musical theatre numbers superbly on an onstage piano, reflecting the background of the key characters. Outstanding production values.

The story revolves around gay couple Steven, a former dancer, and Stephen, a lawyer, and their 8-year-old son Stevie, Steven’s best friend Matt and his partner Brian and Carrie, a friend of them all, who is estranged from her partner Lisa, oh, and terminally ill. Steven & Stephen’s seemingly stable relationship is tested by another Steve, a personal trainer, who also has relationships with Matt and Brian it seems. Then there’s Argentinian Esteban (guess what that translates as?!), who starts as a waiter but becomes intertwined with them, and Stephen Sondheim, who looms large.

It’s an original, cleverly constructed piece, often very funny, with sharp sparkling dialogue, well developed characters and unexpected plot twists. It’s littered with musical theatre references, particularly Sondheim ones, in both dialogue and piano ‘accompaniment’, which I found delicious, but others less seeped in the genre may find less accessible. It’s performed superbly, particularly by David Ames as Steven and Jenna Russell as Carrie. One of the strengths of Andrew Keates’ great production is its pacing, including a stand-out section where Joe Aaron Reid as Stephen is masterly juggling multiple overlapping phone and text conversations alone on stage.

I really enjoyed it. Quality writing and performances, terrific staging and design. What more can you ask for?

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