The good news is that Phil Willmott of The Steam Industry has turned out a much better than passable production of Joe Orton's 60-minute television play. The bad news is that he has embedded it in a two-hour Dennis Potter-style musical.
The casting is a dream, albeit one which does not always pass smoothly. Bette Bourne, a magnificent actor who normally is to drag queens what Handel's Messiah is to sing-along hymns, is superb as Pringle, the fraudulent, sanctimonious leader of a religious cult who attains celebrity as an uxoricide and is then blackmailed with the threat of exposure as being innocent (this is Orton, after all). Bourne is a master of the dynamics of performance, whether covering effortlessly when he "dries", waiting out laughs to deliver the next line or drop-kicking Orton's perverse epigrams perfectly between the posts: "Love thy neighbour", he is admonished as he advances upon his wife; "The man who said that was crucified by his," he replies almost off-handedly.
Pringle's wife Tessa is played by Aimi Macdonald. Little else need be said: more than 30 years on from At Last The 1948 Show she is still the squeaky, dizzy, innocent blonde par excellence, a fine foil to both Bourne and Sylvester McCoy as McCorquodale, the invalid defrocked priest whom she tends and with whom she lives after her faked murder. McCoy, fresh from morphing into Paul McGann in Doctor Who, dodders for all he is worth and, truth to tell, rather more than necessary, but it is hard to begrudge a little excessive teacup-clinking. The weak link is Adam Ant as Caulfield, the young thug engaged by Pringle to do his dirty work. In recent years the erstwhile dandy highwayman of pop has been keen to establish credibility as an actor; having played in Orton before now (in Entertaining Mr Sloane at Manchester's Royal Exchange), he should know better than to tramp through the production in a low key whose wooden naturalism encapsulates the common view of pop-star acting. When a stage entrance came late on the press night, the other three principals won the audience by fumbling around in titters whilst poor Adam did his best to merge with the furniture. He stands, but he does not deliver.
Conceivably Ant simply needs more direction; Phil Willmott is clever and inventive, but stronger on cheeky ideas than on precise execution. This becomes glaringly obvious with the superstructure he has bolted onto the play. Five male supernumeraries play policemen who are supposedly re-enacting the events of the crime, but in fact are simply there to enable the staging of a clutch of interpolated musical numbers, usually in skirts. As with Willmott's South Pacific at the Drill Hall last winter, exuberant camp is expected to make up the deficit in tightly-drilled choreography, and once again it fails. More damagingly, the songs either make explicit subtexts that do not need explicating or are nakedly gratuitous (McCorquodale's reminiscences of decadent Berlin? – cue "Falling In Love Again"; Pringle's dalliance with a Russian diplomat's wife? – cue a bloke in Siberian drag Slavically crooning "I Wanna Be Loved By You"). Bourne stalks the audience with hilarious menace during "Walking After Midnight", and Adam Ant proves on "Calendar Girl" that he is lost without a microphone, but the numbers are wholly unnecessary except to pad out the running time, and consistently hobble the dramatic action.
True, the dramatic production alone is worth the ticket price, and we get more than just that. In this case, however, more is much, much less.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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