I hadn’t really heard about Joe Orton before moving to the UK, although I had seen Prick Up Your Ears when it was released (for me, had a surprise ending – I knew that little). It was the incredible production of Entertaining Mr Sloan I saw at Trafalgar Studios (with Imelda Staunton hysterically unforgettable in the negligee scene) that really raised Orton’s profile in my mind; but What the Butler Saw cemented it, because it had the same completely-pushing-the-boundaries humor matched with an incredible tension. I’ve read a bit about him since I saw Sloane but still not much, so I was in a good place to see a musical about the life of Joe Orton without having a lot of preconceived notions. I also now have a much better idea of what England was like during the period he lived. I am also a fan of new theater, especially new musicals, and I thought it was great that the Above the Stag theater was not just hosting its premiere, but involved in producing it. It seemed the perfect venue for this show, and the packed house seemed very excited to be there.
While I can’t be sure of the “truthiness” of Orton‘s narrative, I found the emotional narrative believable and made for compelling theater. (I was sitting outside at the interval excited about going back in.) You sensed the squirreliness and isolation of Halliwell (Andrew Rowney) at the very beginning, his anxiousness to have a sexy young thing like Orton as his partner and his strong discomfort at his position as a social outsider. Meanwhile Orton (Richard Dawes) moved convincingly from “fresh out of Leicester” closet case to picking up guys everywhere he could city boy. I was never entirely sure of what he saw in Halliwell, but throughout, as Orton continued to be more successful with his sex life as well as his art, I felt entirely reassured by his connection to Halliwell, who came off not as a muse but as a kind of co-conspirator in art.
Swinging Sixties London was nicely evoked by the songs and the musical numbers, from I Don’t Think I Know One (about people willing to be amused at the characters in Orton’s plays while claiming not to know people like that – not surprising as they probably were keeping their behavior very private) to the sexual revolution captured with real belly laughs in Sex in the Suburbs. Sex was, appropriately enough, front and center for a lot of the musical number – and man, they were pretty damned hot. Richard Silver and Sean J Hume even managed to make the gay sex scenes witty (in Form an Orderly Line) – I can’t help but think Orton would have approved!
While the songwriting wasn’t Kander and Ebb, still, I think this was one of the best new musicals I’ve seen in a few years – tuneful songs, a cast with pipes (Valerie Cutko showing the pups how it’s done), and an emotional arc that pulled you right in. I felt lucky to have a chance to see it in an intimate house like the Stag – it could easily be moving to bigger venues soon.
(This review is for a permiere performance that took place on Friday, April 4th, 2014. It continues through May 4th.)