Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 21 July, 2005

Even 40 years after it first appeared in the permissive 1960s, Joe Orton’s work retains a thrill of transgression. Show Orton a line, and he’d cross it.  This, my favourite of his plays, is set in a lunatic asylum and has incest, cross-dressing, white golliwogs and the privates from a statue of Churchill.  And the reason it works is that the dialogue has all the polish of a latter-day, insanely pervy Oscar Wilde.

When Dr Prentice decides to seduce his prospective new secretary, little does he guess that within two hours he and his wife will be in straitjackets, her rapist and a police sergeant in frocks and a visiting psychiatric inspector planning a best-seller about the case.  It’s a classic English farce with some elements going right back to Plautus.  Things gather pace steadily until the second half is all frenzied scrambling.

David Grindley’s production has its weaknesses, most notably the young actors Geoff Breton and Joanna Page, who can’t hit the right note for farce: they’re either too wooden or cartoon-y.  Even Belinda Lang of 2point4 Children fame tries too hard as Mrs Prentice: her voice keeps going into a slight yodel as she over-delivers her lines.  And the set is clever but too “modern”: it should be an old-fashioned nuthatch.

However, the central duo of Jonathan Coy as Dr Prentice and Malcolm Sinclair as Dr Rance, the inspector from “the Government, your immediate superiors in lunacy”, are a delight throughout.  They both know that one of the secrets of comedy, and especially of farce, is to play it as if it really does matter.  It’s a nice touch, too, to have the copper played by Huw Higginson, better known as George Garfield from The Bill.

The Hampstead Theatre seldom produces revivals of plays: I think the last one was Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party (also directed by Grindley) three years ago, when it was still in its old building.  With this production, I think maybe Grindley is a little too preoccupied with period camp. This is a good reading of the play, but not excellent.  But oh, the play itself is just such a finely crafted corncucopia of filth!

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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