Comedy Theatre, London SW1

Opened 30 September, 2009


When John Lahr’s biography of him was published in 1978 and filmed nine years later, Joe Orton had not yet settled into literary history. It is now half a lifetime since his lover Kenneth Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death with a hammer in 1967, and the Islington flat in which they had lived is marked by a commemorative plaque. The events have lost most of their living-memory frisson, and Orton’s plays feel far less transgressive today than at the time of their writing. Consequently Simon Bent’s bioplay, inspired by Lahr’s book and Orton’s diaries, needs to find an alternative source of electricity. It does not, and so, although a stout piece of work, it does not thrill like those previous versions.
A three-hander about a stifling gay relationship is hardly the most bankable West End fare in any case, but Bent’s play has much going for it: the Orton name, for one, plus its strengths as a drama on its own terms, and above all the casting of Matt Lucas as Halliwell. Having long admired Lucas as a performer but found much of Little Britain unpleasant rather than funny, I now feel perversely vindicated to see him using many of the same behavioural devices towards an intentionally disagreeable end. He at first gets to use several of his characters as Halliwell engages in various fantasies alone and with Orton (such as recording a pornographic version of radio soap opera Mrs Dale’s Diary); but as Orton’s success grows and Halliwell becomes more unremittingly prescription-pill-popping, semi-agoraphobic and pathologically jealous, Lucas begins to show his capabilities beyond comedy. Chris New as Orton cannot find a comparable savagery even for the few moments when he needs to display it; his Orton is always a little too reasonable. Their landlady Mrs Corden is written as a pastiche of an Orton character, with Gwen Taylor getting lines such as “A play on the radio, a play in the West End and he probably studied woodwork!”
This is the kind of material which suits Daniel Kramer’s directorial style, at once florid and strident, although he goes overboard with added reverb during Halliwell’s fugue scenes. And it remains heartening to see such a show in the commercial West End, regardless of big names in the cast or subject matter.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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