This is one I almost missed. I've seen three previous productions that director Daniel Kramer has directed - all revivals of plays that I love - Hair, Angels in America, Bent - and I found his vision to be uber gay and tacky. Question - how do you make Bent, a play about debauched homosexuals and Nazi concentration camps gayer? Have Daniel Kramer direct it and turn a few of the Nazis into raging queens, that's how.
Anyway, I have been a big fan of Joe Orton (Loot, Entertaining Mr Sloane, What the Butler Saw) for years, ever since I stumbled across a copy of John Lahr's biography of Orton Prick Up Your Ears in the mid eighties. SInce then I've read it numerous times and have been fascinated by the relationship between Orton and his lover/friend Kenneth Halliwell - what kept them together and the steps leading to Halliwell bludgeoning Orton in the head with a hammer in 1967. For me it has high psychological appeal.
I wasn't entirely thrilled with Stephen Frears film version of the story because it lacked balance. Halliwell seemed to be more of a foil than a major player and there was too much emphasis on the peripheral charcters and the writing of the biography. It was all very academic and high brow which is certainly not what Orton was all about. So, I was thrilled when I heard a stage adpatation was coming to the West End, then I was somewhat put off that Matt Lucas of Little Brittain fame was playing Halliwell. When I found out that Daniel Kramer was directing that nailed the coffin shut. Surely it would be a debauched, superficially gay review of Orton's life. I vowed not to attend.
What eventually got me to go along? First Matt Lucas dropped out for personal reasons, then, Con O'Neill (who I have seen in other productions - and most recently in the film Telstar which is a role he created on stage and was Olivier nominated for) was announced as the new Halliwell. Finally, they really dropped the prices for this transitional period. Well not so much dropped but there were a few offers out there that made it a very attractive proposition - fourth row centre for £15. Excellent. So I booked, I attended and it was excellent. It had all the elements - great script, excellent performances, good set and yes, even good direction. I was wrong to have stayed away.
On a single set that reproduces Orton and Halliwells single room Islington flat, with only three characters (the third being the stupendous Gwen Taylor as their downstairs neighbour Mrs Corden) Prick Up Your Ears managed to cover all the major points of their story from the time right before Orton and Halliwell went to prison for 'redesigning' library books to the murder. What sets this production apart from the film is it gives depth of character to both Orton and Halliwell. It charts the elements that caused friction between the two and helps us understand what their relationship was like, on a physical and emotional level. Halliwell is given an equal voice to Orton's, which oddly enough is what was not present in their lives at the time. He doesn't come across as the irritating and despised monster that the film depicts. In a recent interview Orton's sister remarked that Halliwell wasn't a hated man. I'm glad they put this right because watching Halliwell grasp at straws in various attempts to get Orton to make him feel worthy and needed gives the story a whole new perspective so you sympathise with him. I'm not condoning the behaviour but you understand why things happened the way they did.
All of this storytelling would be nothing without three strong leads. Chris New (who was also in Kramer's Bent and Richard Eyers The Reporter at the National Theatre) gives an energetic, bouyant and cheeky performance as Orton, and as I previously stated Gewn Taylor as the Mrs Corden pitches what could have been a stock performance of the cooky older femail neighbour just right. In fact, all those who know the story will recognise her character as inspriation for some of Orton's characters. This is fact and it's good that playwright Simon Bent picked up on it as well as other details from Orotn's life that influenced his work.
Another nice touch was the use of dialogue to get across background information. This technique is used alot but in this instance it works a charm. Not once do you feel pulled from the flow of the story to listen to lists of background information. It's all organic. Again, in lesser hands it could have been a disaster because however great I think the script is I don't think it's actor proof.
Although all three actors are strong, however, everything depends on the final moments - the murder of Joe Orton by Kenneth Halliwell. Con O'Neill came up trumps and then some. No over the top hystrionics were on display, rather he plumbed the depths of his very being and connected in a way that one rarely gets to witness. During Halliwell's final moments of the play, after the murder, I felt really choked up. I felt his pain. I know it sounds cliche but I was a bit shaken and was wiping moisture from the corner of my eyes. And, it wasn't just me, I heard sniffling from a few others around me as well. When the actors came out for the curtain call Mr O'Neill himself was really holding back the tears, as if a flood of emotions that were stockpiled in the character of Halliwell were trying to burst forth from him. It was then that I realised that he had gone to a very real place in his performance and that reality had a real effect on the audience. A rare treat. Another big plus for live theatre.
I really don't want to say much more about this. One reason is that it seems to have divided the audiences. In my row there were about four or five people who didn't return after the interval. After the performance I saw a woman crying, bu them I overheard someone saying that they 'didn't come to the theatre to hear people argue onstage' and one young woman said that she thought it would be a comedy as it was on at the Comedy Theatre. Hmmmm. On a plus side, Stephen Fry was in the audience and he tweeted later that night about how fantastic it was. He even took Con and Chris out to dinner after the show.
If you see it and I recommend that you do, you have to listen. It's deceptivey simple, the structure, the story, but in reality it's been meticulously constructed. You have to listen.
The Offical Prick Up Your Ears Website
You can also follow me on Twitter @thisbarry.