There are two very good reasons for seeing this rather limp play John Lahr devised in 1986 from the diaries of of the murdered playwright, Joe Orton by his lover Kenneth Halliwell – the performances if George Kemp as Joe and Toby Osmond as Halliwell. There is even a third the supporting cast who play all the other parts do so very well indeed. But Lahr, who scored a success with his 1978 book Prick Up Your Ears about Orton’s killing is here flogging something of a dead horse. As a play it quite simply inert although when first staged in 1986 at the King’s Head and later at the Boulevard theatre in the West End it did enjoy some success. But that was a different world and today Orton is no longer the celebrity he was and one tires rapidly of the endless tales of his adventures in cottages across north London and in Morocco where, when a success, he and Halliwell would holiday. But to his credit George Kemp manages to create an engaging satyr, a sex mad lad with a twinkle in his eye who has escaped the horrors of his family background, the ex jailbird who loathes the police,discovered success and is relishing every minute of it. It is a spell binding performance. As the man who unleashed that talent, the older, educated and undeniably intelligent Halliwell, Toby Osmond creates a deeply sad, flawed man who cannot accept that the person who has become the toast of the town, his creation, has in a sense left him behind. If anything the play shows how badly he was treated by his doctors who dished out pills but failed to spot just how dangerous he was, how sick. In other words this is not the play for today, that would not focus on Joe but would be about Halliwell, whereas here he is pretty the straight man who cannot cope with the fact that it is the comic everyone loves. There are good jokes – Orton was good with the one liners. He could send up the pretension of the working classes, of the middle classes brilliantly and did so in his plays, although they do need to get the right performances if they are to work as the original production of Loot, which failed to come into town, showed – in spite of Kenneth Williams, Duncan Macrae and Geraldine McEwan it died the death in Golder’s Green.It did come in to the West End later in a different production by Charles Marowitz who understood how the cast should play their roles. It got good reviews and was still running when Orton was killed.
Times have changed but there are still satyrs like Joe running around in the world of the arts except not secretly. Today the partnership would be general knowledge which might just have worked for Halliwell as his part in creating Joe would have been recognised. In other words this is not the play for today it could have been but just one more instance of how Lahr worked the Orton life to death. Director Nico Rao Pimpare has staged it handsomely and secured good performances but cannot rescue the play from tedium – it is a hard slog.
George Kemp: Joe Orton.
Toby Osmond: Kenneth Halliwell.
Everybody else: Jemma Churchill, Jamie Zubairi, Sorcha Kennedy, Ryan Rajan Mal.
Director: Nico Rao Pimpare.
Set Design: Valentine Gigandet.
Lighting Design: Luca Panetta.
Sound Design: Andrew Avery.
Production photographs:Nick Britain.