‘Above the Stag’ (ATS) is one of the most distinctive and necessary production houses in London. For the last four years it has been mounting in-yer-face yet populist queer theatre of a kind found hardly anywhere else. Long may it continue to do so.
I get no pleasure at all in saying that the latest offering, a biographical-musical about the life of playwright Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell, is a bit of a stinker.
Feeling like that, I get no pleasure at all in saying that the latest offering, a biographical-musical about the life of playwright Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell, is a bit of a stinker. It is competently enough performed (we’ll come to that) but almost completely intractable as far as the material is concerned.
The life of Orton has been amply rehearsed in the Orton Diaries, the John Lahr biography Prick Up Your Ears and the Stephen Frears/Alan Bennett film thereof. Callow John Orton arrived in London to go to RADA, met the somewhat older and much more sophisticated Halliwell, changed his name to Joe and discovered sex in toilets. They began writing together, then Orton started to develop ideas of his own, to get an independent name for himself. Halliwell, feeling increasingly insecure and side-lined, became more and more dependent on anti-depressants and barbiturates, and while under the influence bludgeoned his partner to death on 8th August 1967. Ironically, homosexual acts between men had been partially decriminalised just 12 days before.
The script by Sean Hume doesn’t add anything to the known facts. Clearly the author has done his research, but it is ill-digested. Too much of the dialogue is narration-by-stealth. “’Entertaining Mr Sloane’ has opened in London and the critics love it”; “’Entertaining Mr Sloane’ has opened in New York and the critics hate it.” This is inherently undramatic. There are also some glaring historical howlers. Jammy Dodgers in 1953? Not in my childhood. Worse, Orton makes reference to ‘gays’ and ‘gay lib’, when the Stonewall Riots were two years after he died, and the Gay Liberation Front didn’t flash across our skies until late 1970. The word Orton would have used is ‘queer’.
At the core of the musical is the relationship between Orton and Halliwell, the former on his upward trajectory and the latter going down. Hume remains as baffled by it as everyone else has been, because there is something deeply mysterious about it: one can see why the desperately shy Halliwell should respond to the admiration of the cute but gauche provincial chicken Orton, but why Orton continued to return the feeling and stay with Halliwell long after the attraction died and Halliwell had made himself impossible to love remains a mystery.
Did Orton depend on Halliwell for his inspiration, as Halliwell maintained? Did he feel guilty, and responsible for making Halliwell what he became, because of his sociopathic form of sexuality? Did the criminality of their relationship doom it? Did a period of imprisonment and separation warp, intensify or destroy their feelings? Any or all of these themes could have made an interesting play and indeed justified turning the story into music theatre. But the authors seem to have no awareness of the potential of their story, taking everything at its face value. Orton’s compulsive cottaging is a cue for a cheeky number, ‘Another Night, Another Man’ which does nothing more than state the obvious.
The crucial question any musical has to answer is ‘Why?’ Why do characters want to burst into song? I have no idea why Silver and Hume thought the life of Orton and Halliwell worth musicalizing. If it is some great Love Story gone sour and skewed, their skills are not up to conveying this in song. The lyrics range from the awkward (of the ‘look at me/prob-ab-lee’ school) to the unsingable (‘I’ll do anything that’s reasonable to survive this dreadful game’). But most crucially they stop the action rather than further it; they describe states of feeling at much greater length than prose would.
The music is entirely homogenous, with nothing to distinguish Orton from Halliwell musically. This becomes unintentionally hilarious when Halliwell has his ‘eleven o’clock’ number ‘Together in Heaven’, explaining how he will keep Orton with him always – in death. In the hands of a Sondheim this might be effective, but here it is merely bathetic. Sniggers all round.
Tim McArthur has some tremendous musical successes under his belt, most notably at ‘Ye Olde Rose and Crown’ in Walthamstow; having little to work on, he moves the bodies around the stage efficiently, hampered by a rather wide, flat acting area for much of the show. A mixed chorus appears from time to time dressed in trench coats for no very good reason except Silver and Hume want harmonies. Andrew Rowney believably conveys the transition from engaging shyness to suicidal insecurity; Richard Dawes has an engaging laddishness but misses the dark and selfish qualities deep in Orton’s psyche, the bleakness in his eyes. Nor, it has to be said, is there any sexual chemistry between the two, which serves to make their bond even more mysterious.
In this limp and limping concoction there are however two deeds that shine in a dreary world. Valeria Kutco’s double turn as agent Peggy Ramsey and Ortonesque neighbour Mrs Cordon seizes on some dialogue which finally has some salt, and Simon Kingsley’s Kenneth Williams is both startlingly and touchingly accurate, a shrewd and wise counsellor beneath the buffoonery. The audience’s spirits lift whenever he is on, and his Variety number, ‘Form an Orderly Line’ stops the show – albeit at a point in Act II when the show doesn’t want to be stopped.