Posts Tagged ‘Joe Orton’

Review – Fred and Madge – Rough Haired Pointer at the Hope Theater

October 7, 2014

I keep thinking of this above-a-pub theater as the “New Hope” theater, in part because I’m a tiny bit obsessed with Star Wars, in part because its commitment to produce NEW theater and the fact it’s not even a year old yet means it is in two ways a NEW theater, one that is giving us HOPE. “Us” being us theater goers, because we’re always hoping for a brilliant new writer to come along (I am anyway) or even just a brilliant new play; but also, I think, “us” as “the writers” and probably all the other people who want new work to be seen in front of an audience. So even though I need to drop the word “new,” say, when I’m looking for the damned place (at the Hope and Anchor Pub, which is much closer to Islington than Angel stations, but just three doors away from Udderlicious), in my head this is going to be the New Hope Theater for quite some time, with Jedis, jawas, and other villainy hiding in the pub below.

What I didn’t expect the Hope Theater to be doing was presenting a work by Joe Orton; but, of all things, it turns out Fred and Madge had never been professionally done before, so it rated a Hope production – and I was glad for the opportunity to see it. Mind there was a certain level of irony in having the show produced a half hour walk from the flat where Joe was murdered; but I found it all more interesting for the atmosphere of a time and place.

But to really get there, let me take you back: London, the late 1950s. You’re an up and coming gay writer with a background on the rough side. Is it a cool world for you? Like hell it is. You look around and see a place where people live together without love and sleepwalk through meaningless lives they tell themselves are full of value. (Fred – Jake Curran – literally has a Sisyphean job, while wife Madge – Jodyanne Richardson – sieves water. I am not joking.) Meanwhile, you have arbiters of taste making pronouncements from on high – but who can take them seriously?

Into a world that already seems to be crazy, Orton puts both an uncontrollable jungle (elephants and banyan trees taking over London) and then the madness of having us step back out of the play, as the director (Jordan Mallory-Skinner) and his buddy stop the action, cut scenes (so as to have more time to drink), and randomly take the parts of missing characters. It’s actually shockingly postmodern for a student but somehow completely grounded in pre-Swinging London, with sex absolutely invisible and rage hiding beneath the surface (along with the slipper bath). The high point for me is the arrival of the insulter (Andrew Brock) and insultrix (Loz Keysone), who take a Wildean pleasure in disrespecting all and sundry. The two of them go into a high psychotic and psychedelic rage against the BBC that had me gasping for breath – spectacular and most unexpected! I think they seem almost to represent Orton’s ego inserting himself into the play.

But it’s guessing these kinds of things just as much as watching the show that makes for the fun, trying to see Orton’s later themes coming out, hearing his voice developing. I found Fred and Madge at times a bit slow, but its absurdity was still very fresh and you can’t entirely fault such a fine kettle of fish, especially when you spend the second act with a small cup of dark chocolate sea salt ice cream from up the street. MMMMM. Now that’s what I call a good night out.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, October 6th, 2014. It closes October 18th. A brief note that Geordie Wright was fun to watch throughout and I apologize for not mentioning him earlier in the review.)

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Review – Orton – a new musical at Above the Stag

April 6, 2014

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.)

Mini-review – What The Butler Saw – The Vaudeville

May 17, 2012

My feeling of elation on walking out of The Vaudeville after seeing What The Butler Saw is difficult to put into words. I felt like Joe Orton had just jumped the shark, landed on a rocket and shot to the moon. The whole play is a cascading series of ridiculousness that’s clearly in the farce tradition (person tells lie, gets into trouble) but all twisted and manipulated to make it feel horribly modern and inappropriate even for the sixties. It oozes the unrestricted sexuality I enjoyed in the previous Joe Orton work I’d seen – many of the characters are bi and quite free with themselves, including the lead character’s wife – and this, to me, turned the formula of the Commedia Dell’arte (read: “One Man, Two Governors”) on its head. It’s still all nudge nudge wink wink and occasional slamming doors (four at once), but instead of stock characters we have a money-hungry rentboy, a married woman who’s in a club for lesbians, and characters who engage in and discuss a variety of non-vanilla sexual practices. All in all, a good looking naked man running across stage mid-show isn’t really all that surprising – it’s just another jolly treat in Orton’s pick a mix bag of dodginess.

While some of the dialog and attitudes seem a bit hard to swallow (you can practically write your own joke here – Orton would have), I fell in love with this production because of the way it felt like every word, character, and action was knowingly transgressive – not just of its time (the Churchill jokes alone make me imagine it would have made blood boil when it was new) but of ours, still. The actors uniformly pushed it further, turning the dial up to eleven and just completely going for it. I felt there was a manic energy on stage and was completely swept up in it, laughing loudly and snorting frequently. Meanwhile, the aged American professor sitting next to me found it just not in the least bit comic. Ah well.

I advise seeing this as soon as possible: they may tone it down and you don’t want to miss this gem while it’s still completely over the top. It’s funnier than anything I’ve seen since London Assurance. Later it may just be another show with perfect timing and every line memorized: right now, it’s joyfully shocking and raw and the actors know it. Just remember: don’t take the kids.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, May 14th, 2012. It continues through August 25th.)

Review – Entertaining Mr. Sloane – Trafalgar Studios

January 28, 2009

Last night I went with Katy and the West End Whingers crewe to see Entertaining Mr. Sloane at Trafalgar Studios. I did my best to shield myself from any information about the show before I went – I mean, the tickets were bought, I was going, why pollute the experience with a bunch of preconceived notions? All I really knew about it was that it was by Joe Orton (who I’d heard a bit about but never seen or read anything by) and starred Imelda Staunton, who is a super nova in my tiny pantheon of stars I really quite like. I figured it was likely racy and possibly had some gay themes in it, to which I said, hurray! I was just looking for a good evening out and I figured this was going to be a great start to my theatrical year.

Well! What I didn’t expect was that this show was going to be hysterically funny and the kind of top quality event that makes me grateful to live in London. (Sadly, the rest of the cast can’t be found on the Ambassador Theatre’s website – what’s wrong with them? Richard Bremmer and Simon Paisley Jones were fantastic!) Staunton was great as sexually chained Kath, the landlady who is utterly taken in by the brash and physical Mr. Sloane (Matthew Horne), the swaggering young man who comes looking for a place to live and acts like he owns the place before he’s even agreed to move in. The cast is rounded out by the twitchingly stiff brother Ed (Simon Paisley Jones) and the doddering DaDa (Richard Bremmer).

The whole thing feels like a sort of madcap Pinter, as if the bleak living situation of “The Birthday Party” and the freakishly charged sexual politics of “Homecoming” (and all of the implied class attitudes and repression of the 50s, which didn’t smell much like it had changed even in ’64) had been shaken up with “Boeing Boeing.” Kath can’t keep her pants on, but in the environment of this play, it just seems like so much comedy that she’s spent her whole life locked up by her brother and unable to create any sort of existence for herself because of some teenaged sexual shenanigans. And her brother could come off as a rigid tyrant and supporter of sexual oppression, but his own, visibly vibrating self-repression (best during the scene when Mr. Sloane’s recital of his various forms of exercise leaves Ed nearly cross-eyed – only to end the scene all but drooling on the floor as he describes the leather chauffeur’s uniform he will have to outfit Mr. Sloane in once he comes to work for him) makes him a figure of comedy. And Da is just brilliant – an old, weak man who seems like a fool but has a sharp mind under his failing body (Richard Bremmer in a performance of complete genius).

With a script that borders on ludicrous, it takes an amazing cast to pull of its cheesy lines without having it completely disintegrate – and this group of actors delivered in spades. Every one of them completely holds the stage (as if they were all attempting to upstage each other simultaneously), and while a leather-clad Mr. Sloane might catch the eye, the glowering Ed is just as powerful – though Staunton prancing around in a horrid, see-through negligee pretty well steals the show (and had nearly all of my party falling out of their chairs). She really just has the verve and wow and timing and … God, just the whole package! I really had no idea she was such a brilliant comic actress, but she is just the highlight of this show. And Bremmer’s crotchety old man was great – such a sense of menace in his own way, but absolutely no dummy, and a keen hand with a hot poker.

Who knows, maybe there was some kind of extra energy with the preview audience, but it was just an electric exchange between stage and stalls and I feel lucky to have been able to see it. Trafalgar Studios is a smallish theater, this play is just a revival, not a premiere, but damn, here I am living in London and this kind of stuff is just going on all of the time. Or not, really, because there are certainly plenty of dogs out there. But if you’re looking to get your laughs in, I gotta say, get your buns in a seat in Studio 1 and get ready for great night out – Mr. Sloane will deliver.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 27th, 2009. For an alternate, yet similar take, please see the West End Whingers’ review. It runs through April 13th – don’t wait too long or it will be gone!)