Entertaining Mr. Orton, by the Tower Theatre Company, is the Tin Man of shows: brains but no heart. This documentary-farce (that’s a hyphenation no one should ever have to make) is witty but doesn’t treat a true story with any kind of compassion. Martin Mulgrew’s attempt to present Orton’s murder in the style of one of his plays just feels a little off. It’s amusing but would be much funnier if it could make up its mind and be a delightful 1960s farce or a meaningful look at Orton’s death.
Jack Burns and Stuart Denman, as Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell, are strong actors but are badly directed. Orton and Halliwell may have been flamboyantly gay men but they were people, not caricatures. The show is as pleasant and comforting as any good old-fashioned drawing room farce but the jokes and innuendo are built around a very real and very sad story. Orton and Halliwell were arrested for vandalising library books (really!) and sentenced very harshly, mostly due to being openly gay in 1962. After their release, Halliwell, jealous of Orton’s literary success and wandering attentions, bludgeoned his partner to death with a hammer, then killed himself with an overdose of barbiturates. Entertaining Mr. Orton sidles away from saying anything meaningful about jealousy or homophobia in 1960s Britain. We also never really get a sense of Orton and Halliwell’s relationship, beyond the block capital emotions of JEALOUSY and RAGE. Characters in a farce don’t need inner lives. They’re there to make us laugh, not to make us care. Yet Mr. Orton can’t make up its mind if wants one to do one or the other.
The set is well built but can’t decide if it wants to be literal or figurative. It doesn’t fall down but it certainly falls flat. It’s plastered in a collage of photos, meant to mimic the collages on the walls of Orton’s real-life apartment. Yet was it really necessary to cover everything onstage with photos, even the sofa? The contrast between the unrealistic set, the very loud, archetypal costuming, and the real food eaten onstage is jarring. Also, someone needs to explain to the costume designer that six-inch platform heels just didn’t exist in 1962, no matter how sexy the secretary.
So many shows do so much with so little; it’s disheartening to see a show that does so little with so much. The cast is quite large and at least three of the characters feel superfluous. There are also a number of unnecessary scenes. I’m not sure what the pastiche of Orton’s What The Butler Saw was meant to accomplish, other than Orton’s lawyer feeling up his secretary. That’s the show’s trouble overall: Entertaining Mr. Orton is indeed entertaining and there are some great one-liners, but it might be more productive just to put on one of Orton’s own plays, rather than aping his style in an awkward reenactment of his gruesome death.