JOE & I
King's Head Theatre, London N1
Opened 15 November, 2005
**

On all the recent occasions I have seen Peter Bowles on stage, he has seemed to me to devour his roles with more brio than was necessary or indeed useful to the play... even when the play was Anthony Shaffer's role-playing thriller Sleuth. I am both happy and relieved to find that he can still turn in a measured performance, both intellectually and emotionally considered and proportionate in scale to the dimensions of a pub theatre. This is, in part, because his character has far and away the best of Laurie Slade's writing, until a dreadfully overdone coda which Bowles must perforce rise to meet.

"This play is inspired by the lives and work of Terence Rattigan, Oscar Wilde and Joe Orton," declares a programme note, although "The characters and events onstage are imagined." Events, granted, but characters? These are by name and all other outward appurtenances the three playwrights in question. In 90 minutes of continuous action, the then-rising Orton visits and seduces Rattigan in his rooms at the Albany, which are whimsically haunted by the shade of Wilde. There is much musing upon the (perhaps conflicting) sexual and emotional components of homosexual involvement, how these interacted with the artistic impulses of each of the three writers, and upon the two "living" writers' torturous relationships with their respective Kenneths: Kenneth Morgan, whose suicide after their break-up inspired Rattigan's masterpiece The Deep Blue Sea, and Kenneth Halliwell, who bludgeoned his lover Orton to death before killing himself.

Alas, Slade simply fails to do justice to his ideas. Rattigan, as I say, emerges as a thoughtful character, but as Wilde, all Bryan Murray has to do is glide through, quoting principally from Salome or The Ballad Of Reading Gaol ("Yet each man kills the thing he loves..." yes, thank you, we'd got that). Simon Hepworth has the rawest deal of all, in several senses: as Orton, he spends most of the play stripped to his briefs, uttering painful innuendoes which recall the author of Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane less than they do those 1970s soft-porn Confessions Of... films. The real Rattigan discerned in Orton a bold new voice, and invested in Sloane's West End transfer; what he could have seen in this puerile nudge-nudge merchant, well toned pecs notwithstanding, is a mystery.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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