John Lahr’s Diary of a Somebody makes a return to the stage after an absence of 35 years, this time at Seven Dials Playhouse.
a welcome revival; in places highly enjoyable and moving
It tells the familiar story of playwright Joe Orton (George Kemp) and his partner Kenneth Halliwell (Toby Osmond); a dramatisation of verbatim extracts from The Orton Diaries combined with letters and literary fragments, as well as psychiatric reports. It focuses on the last eight months of their lives, culminating on 9th August 1967 with Orton’s death at the hands of Halliwell who then proceded to commit suicide, as his father had done in 1949.
The couple met at RADA. During their early years together they collaborated unsuccessfully on publishing ventures, worked in small theatres and even at Cadbury’s, where two years' employment gave them the money to move to Islington. A short stay in prison for theft and malicious damage relating to library books separated them and during this incarceration in 1962, Orton discovered his independence.
His first play, Entertaining Mr Sloane, was a triumph and won the London Critics’ Variety Award as the best play of 1964. It established his status as an outstanding writer of black comedy and one of the most subversive dramatists of the period. He challenged the Establishment, mocked the police, affronted conservative morals and lived a life of promiscuity. His reputation as one of the most outrageous writers of his day was secured with his second play, Loot, which won the Evening Standard Drama Award for the best play of 1966.
For Halliwell, life went in the opposite direction. Lacking Orton’s charisma and good looks his mental health issues took him on a downward spiral of depression. Although claiming to be the inspiration and mentor for his partner, he was reduced to being no more than private secretary to the man who stole the limelight, although he did undoubtedly make a significat contribution, particularly in the early days and in editing. Together they enjoyed writing outraged correspondence under the pseudonym of Edna Welthorpe (Mrs), which is cleverly featured in this production, but it is symbolic of their relationship, that even the green plaque on the outside wall of their flat at 25 Noel Road, Islington says Joe Orton ‘Lived Here 1960-1967’, with no mention of Halliwell or the murder.
Their individuality and the uneasiness of their relationship is convincingly portrayed by both actors. Kemp oozes self-belief, assurance, social confidence and a degree of arrogance. His body combined with the clarity of his enunciation and the classy accent are a reminder that Orton, who grew up Leicester, decided in his mid teens to take elocution lessons to erode his regional identity at the same time as he started bodybuilding to improve his physique. Osmond does equally well, particularly in portraying Halliwell’s decline. He can be seen at odds with those around him and the play is so written that he has little to say in the first half, almost begging the question as to why he is there at all, which is what many people of the day asked of Orton. His uneasy movements reveal a time of festering tension, of nervous encounters with rising envy and jealousy eating away at him. Holidays together make matters worse and finally Osmond delivers the emotionally distraught outbursts, the arguments and baiting that dominate the latter parts of the play. He transforms Halliwell into a previously unseen figure; a man of violence seeking retribution, venting all the anger that has built up over the years, and he does so in a manner that is awe-inspiring.
If the play were a two-hander content with exploring their relationship even further it might be more gripping. However, a myriad of other characters making multiple entrances and exits are played by just four actors: Jemma Churchill; Jamie Zubairi; Sorcha Kennedy and Ryan Rajan Mal, who makes his stage debut. There is an excess of noisy comings and goings with shoes heavily hitting the hard floor with barely enough time to catch breath before appearing as someone else or reappearing as, for example, the beloved Edna Welthorpe (Mrs), Kenneth Williams (in a hit and miss impersonation), an assortment of Arab boys or various men in public places.
Which leads to the laboured accounts of cottaging, rent boys and casual encounters. While I have no problem listening to someone’s sexual exploits with young men in a variety of venues, nor indeed of relating my own, but over the years the possible shock factor has been removed and there comes a point at which nothing new is revealed and scenarios become repetitive and as tedious as the reciting of dates from the Diary.
Sound Designer Andrew Avery uses several songs by the Beatles to denote the period and also as a reminder of the ongoing saga of the screenplay Orton was asked to write for them but which was never filmed, though it was subsequently published as Up Against It. Indeed, on the day of their deaths a chauffeur was sent to take Orton to a meeting to discuss it and it was he who found their bodies. Production Designer Valentine Gigandet has faithfully recreated the atmosphere and likeness of the couple’s flat with the famous collaged wall, the single bed and added statues of Oscar Wilde and David, while Lighting Designer Luca Panetta successfully enhances the changing moods.
Director Nico Rao Pimparé’s production is a welcome revival; in places highly enjoyable and moving, but there are often good reasons why a play languishes for so long without seeing the light of day.