Orton continues at the Above the Stag Theatre, London until 4 May.
I wonder what Joe Orton would have made of a stage musical with him as the central figure. Judging from the character presented to us in Sean J Hume and Richard Silver’s new musical, I suspect he’d be amused or at least bemused by the thought.
Orton, which focuses as much on the life of the doomed playwright’s lover Kenneth Halliwell as it does on Orton himself, is a distillation of the two men’s relationship, played out in their dingy bedsit and the nearby public toilets. It’s a sexy and fast-paced affair that plots the key stages leading to – spoiler alert – Halliwell bludgeoning Orton to death and taking his own life with Nembutal and grapefruit juice. I say ‘spoiler alert’ but it’s written in the programme notes, and the chance of anyone seeing this show who doesn’t already know the basics of Orton’s life and death is slim, judging by the demographic of the audience in the night I attended.
The drama starts as Orton and Halliwell, seven years his senior, meet for the first time at RADA. Orton, played by the excellent Richard Dawes, flirts coquettishly with Andrew Rowney’s outwardly confident but socially awkward Halliwell, and the two quickly hit it off. From the outset, Dawes and Rowney have a convincing chemistry, and they keep the audience engaged with the rapidly unfolding story.
Dawes, all eyelashes and Daniel Radcliffe innocence, introduces his Orton as a sweet ingénu who soon wises up to life as a gay man in 1960s London, turning into a promiscuous, sexual predator. Rowney, in turn, gives a strong, assured performance as the troubled Halliwell, who descends – albeit very rapidly in Act II – from an assured young man to a jealous and murderous manic depressive.
Supporting them is Valerie Cutko in the dual role of Ortonesque landlady Mrs Cordon and, thanks to some rapid costume changes behind the scenes, Orton’s agent, Peggy Ramsay. She doesn’t have the strongest voice of the cast, but she acts everyone off the stage. Completing the quartet of key players is Simon Kingsley, whose star turn in Act II as actor Kenneth Williams is by far the comic highlight of the evening.
A strong ensemble – Danielle Irvine, a comical Robert McNeilly and, best of all vocally, Katie Brennan – works wonders with Richard Silver’s music and handles Phillip Aiden’s choreography in the tight space available. The staging is fairly simple, with director Tim McArthur making effective use of six doors-cum-toilet cubicles and a sliding panel that reveals the Noel Street bedsit. He could relax his grip on the smoke machine, though – the entire show is played out through a thick, smoky haze; is this perhaps meant to add a fuggy 1960s pub atmosphere?
I’m sad to say, though, that the drama is let down by the songs, which I feel neither suggest the 1960s period nor really do much to advance or enhance the story. They work in one sense, in that the tunes – delivered from the piano by Chris Huntley with the assistance, I presume, of backing tracks – provide some entertaining moments.
Orton’s introductory number (‘Hey I’m Here I’m Joe’), his sexual exploits (’Another Night Another Man’) and Kenneth Williams’ hilarious music-hall number (’Form An Orderly Line’) are wonderfully staged, delightfully comical and get a great response from the audience. But there are two or three too many songs that seem out of place and that detract from what is – should be – an agonising, heartbreaking story. ‘Americans’ and ‘Sex in the Suburbs’, fun though they are, simply defuse the tension and draw focus away from the heart of the story: the captivating, tragic relationship between two people, gay or otherwise. On saying this, the final number, ‘Together in Paradise’, did touch that emotional nerve that I hoped more of the songs would have.
It’s early days in this show’s life. Orton has a lot to offer, and Tim McArthur and Above the Stag should be applauded for attempting to bring this period piece to a new generation. But I feel that Silver and Hume have more to do to get this gem polished and working harder as something more than just a gay romp. I’m sure it’s what Orton would’ve wanted.
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