Guest Review – Prick Up Your Ears – Comedy Theatre

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What is a girl to do when she has tickets for two shows on the same night? Thanks to winning a ticket giveaway on LastMinute.com, this happened to me. I decided to stick with the shorter one and likely cheerier one (An Inspector Calls) and gave these tickets away to the husband of a friend of mine … a friend who’s a huge Joe Orton fan. My requested payment? A review of the show. And thus we have …

Prick Up Your Ears, a guest review by Katy

If you have read the biography and the diaries and the plays and watched the film adaptation (yes, I am a bit of an Orton fan, why do you ask), then the play of Prick Up Yours Ears will not show you anything you didn’t already know, but you should go to see it anyway. (The one thing I wasn’t expecting was the Battenberg-cake ceiling, which kept giving me a vague craving for marzipan.) If you haven’t done any of that, I recommend it anyway if you’re interested in watching the faithful depiction of a loving, intense, unbearable and tragic relationship rendered through very funny Ortonesque – and indeed Halliwellesque, why not? – dialogue.

I’ve always seen the inextricably intertwined history of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell as one of the great love stories. There’s a satisfying clarity about the themes, the similarities and the oppositions: the two men shared their love, their trangressive homosexuality, their actors’ training, their obsession with language, their sense of humour and their anarchic indifference towards all forms of authority. It’s easy to see why they were together. And, terribly, you can also see right from the start why it was doomed. The young, attractive, working-class, confident, talented Orton and the older, middle-class, insecure, much less talented Halliwell, living for fifteen years in one room while one became famous and one didn’t: it all feels very inevitable.

The intelligent, realistic production of Prick Up Your Ears at the Comedy Theatre is of course very aware of all this. It’s an adaptation by Simon Bent of John Lahr’s biography of the same name, which was largely based on Orton’s diaries: Orton’s life was well documented, not just in content but in style. Everything the characters say on stage is more or less what they actually said at the time. And yet it’s art, too, because Orton himself made it art. The dialogue in his plays were very much riffs off the way the people around him spoke – illustrated in this production by Mrs Cordon (Gwen Taylor), the comic-relief landlady, who forms the third character in what is essentially a two-hander, and is basically a character from Orton while also being a real-life inspiration of his. At this point it starts to feel as if art and life are bouncing off each other like light off opposing mirrors: is Mrs Cordon Ortonesque, or was Orton Cordonesque?

The life-reflecting-art-reflecting-life effect is further heightened by the awareness that the play – and the film of Prick Up Your Ears, and the biographies, and the diaries – has given Halliwell at least a taste of what he always wanted, fame, too late for him to appreciate it; even if the fame is eternally linked to his lover’s. The fact that this production features celebrity actor Matt Lucas as Halliwell underlines the irony. Whereas the biography was really about Orton, the play is angled to become really a play about Halliwell. It was a good decision, and a good casting choice. Matt Lucas is a perfect Kenneth: bald, angry, pretentious, funny, showing us that his position is both untenable and irresistible. He delights in his lover’s failures and resents his successes, partly because he himself has failed, and partly because Orton’s successes are driving them apart. Chris New as Orton plays off him brilliantly: bickering, shouting, bantering affectionately, and then carelessly leaving to pursue his endless cottaging activities while Halliwell does the housework and sadly sniffs his lover’s scent on the pillows.

Poor Kenneth. Despite everything (and I’m not going to specify exactly what ‘everything’ is here, just in case there’s anyone who doesn’t know how this ends), it’s impossible not to feel sorry for him. My companion J (who was new to the story) muttered ‘Poor bastard!’ several times during the production, particularly when Orton presents Halliwell with a present – a wig to cover his baldness. And yet, what was Orton to do? It wasn’t a situation anyone could win at.

The structure of the play is chronological, taking us through the major turning points of the couple’s life together. First, the early years of library-book-defacing, and the seminal prison sentence that finally gave Orton space to write. (The prison theme is referenced throughout: every time the door to their room closes, the sound effect is of prison gates.) Then the increasing success of Orton’s plays, Orton becoming gloriously Orton and Halliwell remaining ingloriously, defiantly Halliwell. “You’ve changed,” says Kenneth after their post-prison reuniting. “You haven’t,” replies Joe glumly. Orton’s even changed his own name, from John to Joe.

He becomes famous. Every step takes him further away from Kenneth; and yet he never does leave. Their room, rendered on stage with claustrophobic, congested, increasingly-collaged accuracy, is a prison he keeps returning to. The couple have locked themselves into co-dependency, in the kind of love that continually tenses up into hate. It becomes increasingly hard to watch, the comedy darker and disintegrating, as they reach the end. Symbolically, Mrs Cordon has moved away: there’s no light relief from each other now, and although Joe is starting to consider it, Kenneth is determined that there shall be no escaping.

(This review was for a performance in September, I think on the 23rd. Prick Up Your Ears continues until December 6th at the Comedy Theatre.)

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