Monday, September 21, 2009

Prick Up Your Ears

At the Comedy Theatre, events leading to the death of playwright Joe Orton are given a new slant in this enthusiastically received play by Simon Brent. Clever casting and a change of emphasis suggest the tragedy resulted from professional rivalry rather than sexual jealousy.

The 1987 film based on John Lahr’s biography and Orton’s diaries blamed Orton’s murder by gay partner Halliwell on sexual tensions between the ill-matched pair. Orton’s success with back comedy masterpieces Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot is a mere aggravating factor. Alfred Molina portrayed Halliwell as tormented by the promiscuity of the young man, a camp performance contributed by Gary Oldman. Orton’s upper-class agent Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave) was openly contemptuous of the bald introvert.

In Bent’s play, the focus is shifted. The couple having shared a bedsitter since meeting at RADA, have collaborated on a number of unpublished works, ennumerated by Halliwell in the first scene. When Orton claims sole authorship for plays Halliwell claims he helped to create, their relationship falls apart.

A key change is the introduction of busy-body neighbour Mrs Cordon, Gwen Taylor bustling in a flowery apron, hardly seeming to notice the men are gay. Orton and Halliwell wrote to a real Mrs Cordon when they were in imprisoned for defacing library books. She not only detracts from the sexual element by 'normalising' the relationship. Echoing the comic middle-aged stereotypes of the plays, she’s a reminder that Orton drew inspiration from his and Halliwell’s shared life.

The clever and successful casting of Matt Lucas is a delightful coup. First seen prancing to music in multicoloured pyjamas, Lucas’s chubby ‘only gay in the village’ persona is both comic and pathetic. He’s evidently the source of funny lines and ideas which the less flamboyant Orton(Chris New) notes for future use. Halliwell is the sophisticated wit, apparent in the scene where they record a hilarious spoof of the early BBC radio soap ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’. Far from protesting at Joe’s sexual adventures, Kenneth seems to excuse it on the grounds of his own impotence .

It's left to the staging to deliver the necessary sense of menace: scene ends are marked by the sudden surrounding of the room by a lighted frame, and a loud clashing noise. The walls of the bedsitter gradually darken, covered by illustrations like creeping fungus. Toward the end, when Halliwell hardly leaves the house, bars of light filter through shutters into the cramped interior. Conversations are punctuated by the failed writer’s frantic imbibing of pills and the now feted playwright’s stealthy movements and growing obsession with his diary. The climax, provoked by the sleep-deprived Orton’s remark to Halliwell that he is a ‘middle-aged nonentity’, seems inevitable.

Most writers experience years of struggle and rejection. Simon Bent’s play shows the anguish of an aspiring writer and mentor whose partner achieves celebrity. Joe Orton wins the Evening Standard Award for best West End Play just before he’s murdered. Halliwell, his former mentor, has by then abandoned his own writing and the aggrieved attack seems a logical,if tragic, outcome.

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Saturday, September 19, 2009


‘Bad news- they don’t have any exhibitions on!’ Friend M had travelled from Kent at my invitation to meet at the Royal Academy. I could take her in as a guest on my membership card, I’d told her, but we were four days too late for the ‘Post-Modernist Pre-Raphaelite’ J W Waterhouse exhibition.

Luckily, I remembered Ken Howard. An artist who excels in depicting the play of light on reflective surfaces, his collection entitled 'Small oils fromVenice, Cornwall and London’ was on display in the Friends’ Room. Water was much in evidence, also a number of his studio portraits of models with mirrors which I’ve admired in Summer Exhibitions .

By happy chance (or thoughtful programming), reflections figured in the courtyard, where workmen were putting the finishing touches to an installation.

The giant bubbles towered over poor diminished Joshua Reynolds and his palette, reflecting the Georgians facades of the surrounding RA buildings. When we stood up close, they also threw back our own distorted images, like a funfair ‘Hall of Mirrors’.

M is by way of an amateur painter, and about to start on an evening course in portrait painting in Rochester. I suggested we go to the BP Awards exhibition at the National Portrait Galley, to see some more reflections, this time of subjects distorted by artistic interpretation.

As we walked through Green Park, under leaves turning to Autumnal gold, we saw ourselves reflected again as spectators, this time in the sides of a shiny coach emerging from some imposing gates onto The Mall.

Ken Howard at the RA:,287,RAL.html

Anish Kapoor at the RA:

BP Portraits Awards at the NPG:

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Climate Camp

‘I’ll meet you by the donkeys opposite the park gates’ said my octogenarian friend. French, Marxist, veteran demonstrator and former colleague, C was shocked that I hadn’t been to visit the Climate Camp already. After all, this was the fourth day and it was located on the heath at the top of my road. I mumbled something about it being a secret, but in truth I'd heard a rumour. I was just busy getting ready for my holiday.

The camp area was fenced on all sides, obliging us to listen to a convoluted explanation of the connection between capitalism and climate change from a well-spoken youth guarding the entry gate. He was sitting on a bale of hay.

Bringing down capitalism appealed to me much more than my ecologically-conscious friend D’s approach. Her latest claim to the moral high-ground includes knitting waistcoats for rescued battery hens. I’d much rather man the barricades.

There was an air of conspiracy about the camp; a notice in one of the marquees warned against discussing ‘business’ in case of listeners with long-distance audio equipment.

The protagonists seemed innocent enough, sitting or standing around with plaited hair and cotton skirts - women included - like villagers at an annual fete or grown-up characters from the Malcolm Saville book I was once given as an attendance prize Some were chalking notices about workshops and film shows. I’d have liked to attend a screening of ‘Dr Stranglelove’, but it wasn’t on until 9pm.
As we strolled around the camp C confided she felt like shouting ‘More power to your elbows’, which alarmed me on two counts. I didn’t want to call attention to our status as incomers, and it didn’t seem quite approprate – especially as regards the people peacefully lounging around on the grass.

The young man on the hay bale had concluded his talk by inviting us to sample free food about to be served in one of the tents C’s eyes lit up, then she saw the queues. She inspected the overflowing plates of people turning away from trestles laden with huge vats
‘Couscous! Just because I ‘m a protester, doesn’t mean I have to turn vegetarian !’ expostulated La Gourmande. Meantime I was thinking I’d had enough of camping for one year. Maybe we’re both getting too old for demos.

Climate Camp:

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Travelling Companion

'Friend! Friend!' The toddler patted the window in the shopping centre. Apart from the squeaky voice, blonde hair and cherubic face , it was a re-run of Boris Karloff in the Frankenstein film, trying out the new word the nice blind man taught him. (The only character in the film not to run screaming at the sight of the craggy creature with a bolt through his neck)

It seemed strange, when the window was devoted to a set of matching luggage. Luckily, his mother knew what he meant.

'Yes, I do like the suitcases', she said.' But they're pink. Mummy doesn't do pink.'

I'd just called in at the shop next door, pricing up medium-sized travel-bags. Surely the heavy clothes I'd need for half a Castile-Leon Winter wouldn't fit into my cabin bag. The ones I'd seen carried price tags between £30 and £40 - too steep; just as well I've started looking a month before I'm due to go.

The medium pink one in the window was only £15, 'reduced' from £20. I ask myself does it really matter what colour of luggage I have? For a 50% price reduction, this mummy would most definitely do pink!

The Curse of Frankenstein (1931)