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 The couple having shared a bedsitter since meeting at RADA, have collaborated on a number of unpublished works, ennumerated by Halliwell in the first scene.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)

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