Tag Archives: Joe Orton

Seaside Sauce

HABEAS CORPUS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 16th March, 2018

 

Alan Bennett’s curious farce from the early 1970s doesn’t feel like an Alan Bennett.  The cosy, Northern bleakness of his bathos is not present in this early work, in which he strives to dazzle with his intelligence at the expense of character development.  A farce needs a light touch to make its contrivances palatable; Bennett peppers his with dark observations about mortality amid all the libido-driven incidents and misunderstandings.  The play sounds very much like a Joe Orton.

Vanessa Comer gives her production a decidedly seaside postcard appeal: bathing huts and bunting serve as the setting, and the performance style is very much end-of-the-pier revue.  The cast adopt a larger-than-life style to suit the excesses of their characters – ciphers, by and large, with their individual lusts and longings driving their actions.

Niki Baldwin kicks things off as charwoman-cum-narrator-cum-host, Mrs Swabb, an impudent but charming presence – a working class character bemused by the goings-on of this middle-class mob.  Pamela Hickson is pitch perfect as the frustrated Mrs Wicksteed, neglected by her husband, flitting between deadpan and melodramatic posturing.  As her husband, Dr Wicksteed, Peter Ward can afford to be more exaggerated in his lechery, to increase the contrast between his professional and his personal demeanours.  Kathy Buckingham is a hoot as lonely spinster Connie, proudly sporting her mail-order mammaries – the triggers for incidences of mistaken identity.  After a bit of a flustered start, David Draper’s Sir Percy provides some funny moments with his trousers down.  Abi Deehan is sweetly conniving as young Felicity, hoping to trap a man into marrying her and legitimise the child she is carrying, but for me, the most consistent and developed characterisation of the show comes from Nathan Brown as the Wicksteed’s weedy, spotty, hypochondriac son, Dennis – an Emo Phillips lookalike, the antithesis of the dashing young hero!

It’s familiar territory but Bennett heightens the theatricality; the cast need to sharpen the quickfire asides to the audience and I’m sure the first-night fluffs will disappear as the show’s run progresses, and the entrances and exits need sharpening to maintain a fast pace.

The plot winds up with a direct riff on The Importance of Being Earnest with Margot McCleary’s Lady Rumpers doing a Lady Bracknell and Dennis paraphrasing John Worthing regarding his adopted fatal illness.

And so Bennett, yet to find his own voice, gives us Orton and now Oscar Wilde – it makes sense.  All three are gay men holding up to ridicule the social and sexual mores of heterosexuals, making the audience laugh at themselves.  Society has moved on since the play’s first production – does the audience recognise itself on the stage?  Probably not very much; these two-dimensional stereotypes are old hat.

All in all, this makes for an enjoyable production, with the energy of the cast just about covering the creaking of the plot.

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Mrs Swabb (Niki Baldwin) introduces Dennis (Nathan Brown)

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Dodgy Lodger

ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE

Blue Orange Theatre, Thursday 5th October, 2017

 

Joe Orton’s version of the ‘well-made play’ still has the power to amuse fifty or so years since its original production.  Society has moved on and we are all accustomed to seeing and hearing more overtly shocking things on television any night of the week, so for us it may be difficult to imagine the impact of Orton’s work.  His characters speak with vernacular erudition, almost epigrammatically, revealing their own desires – in true comic tradition (from the ancients, in fact) characters are driven by their vices.  In this case, it seems to be lust, on the part of Kath and her brother Eddie, inspired by the arrival into their lives of the enigmatic Mr Sloane.

Director Ian Craddock goes for period piece (of course, the play was contemporary with the time of its production) but ups the shock factor by introducing a spot of nudity, creating a frisson early on in proceedings.  Outbursts of anger and violence are handled well – I am struck by the similarities between Orton and early Pinter.  This is comedy with menaces.

As sentimental, possessive and damaged Kath, Elaine Ward is top notch, in a layered characterisation that goes deeper than the grotesque.  We glimpse the heartbreak that has affected her entire personality, although we have to piece together the details of her back story from contradictory accounts, some of them out of Kath’s own mouth.  Ivor Williams blunders about as the elderly and infirm Kemp, Kath’s father – we feel sympathy for the old man while we laugh at his callous mistreatment from all and sundry.  William Hayes as brother Eddie encapsulates the menace and intensity the part requires, richly laced with sarcasm – although he does appear to be the only Brummie in this London-set family.

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William Hayes (Eddie) and Jake Hodgkinson (Sloane)

For me, the night belongs to Sloane himself – which is only fitting given the way he turns the heads of Kath and Eddie.  As the handsome, amoral opportunist, Jake Hodgkinson is spot on and irresistible.  You can see why the others find him so attractive from the off – before his trousers come off, I mean!   Hodgkinson combines the looks (the dyed blond hair suits!) with a wily charm and a bad boy attitude.  The violence is entirely credible, as are the flashes of vulnerability when events threaten to overpower him.

It’s a very funny play with Orton satirising the hypocrisy of those who take advantage of others under the guise of charitable acts.  Many of the lines, spouted in an Alf Garnett manner, could come directly from the streets of today, where UKIP and Brexit views have become more prevalent – but no less abhorrent.

An excellent production that showcases a masterpiece and allows each member of the cast to demonstrate their skills.  Inevitably, I feel the loss of Orton all over again.  What wonders he may have gone on to write are forever denied us, and that’s a terrible pity.

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Jake Hodgkinson (Sloane) and Elaine Ward (Kath)

 

 


You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here…

WHAT THE BUTLER SAW

Curve, Leicester, Monday 13th March, 2017

 

Not more dreary confessions from Paul Burrell but Joe Orton’s final play, staged in his home town fifty years after he was murdered by his mentally ill boyfriend.

The play – a farce – has mental illness at its core.  Set in the consulting room of Dr Prentice (Rufus Hound), the action begins with sexual harassment during a job interview and goes rapidly (and deliciously) downhill from there.  The staples of farce are all present, from the set with its abundance of exits, to misunderstandings, disguise, physical comedy, and characters motivated by their foibles, all wrapped up in an absurd situation.  What lifts Orton’s writing far above the usual Whitehall fare (all the rage at the time of the first production) is the quality of the writing.  Deliberately provocative, the dialogue sparkles with Wildean epigrams.  The seemingly frothy exchanges belie the dark underbelly of the world of the play – and, by extension, our society.  And it retains the power to prick our sensibilities today, in this overly sensitive age when being offended is a time-consuming occupation.

Rufus Hound is in manic form as the lecherous psychiatrist – it’s almost as though he’s auditioning for a 1970s sitcom.  Catherine Russell’s Mrs Prentice matches him for moments of hysteria but her own lechery is more coolly portrayed.  Jasper Britton dominates as the pompous and tyrannical Dr Rance, imposing his psychoanalysis on what he perceives to be the case – he’d fit in perfectly in this post-truth world where those in authority have no regard for facts.

Ravi Aujla’s unfortunate police sergeant adds to the chaos while our sympathy is aroused by Dakota Blue Richards’s hapless Geraldine, an innocent embroiled in a nightmare.  The ever-excellent Jack Holden makes a fetching page boy as Nicholas Beckett – I can’t decide if he’s more appealing stripped to his underpants or dolled up in wig and leopard-print frock….

Director Nikolai Foster keeps the action frenetic and the dialogue quick fire.  The pace doesn’t let up for an instant – that would be death to a farce.  Michael Taylor’s curved, clinical set, brightly lit by Ben Cracknell, provides a stark backdrop for these colourful characters, and the result is a relentlessly funny, morally questionable evening’s entertainment.  That some of our laughter is uneasy shows how well Orton had his finger on the pulse, and the sheer, overt contrivance of the denouement blatantly mocks the excesses of the form.

A dark masterpiece, flawlessly presented – and I can’t help wondering what else Orton might have given us had he lived even a little bit longer.

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Jack Holden and Rufus Hound face a hairy situation (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)


Doing What They Orton

ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 3rd July, 2014

 

It’s fifty years since Joe Orton’s sordid little play was first produced and half a century later as this touring production from London Classic Theatre shows, it may not be as shocking as it once was, but it’s certainly still very funny.

Simon Kenny’s set has more junk than Steptoe’s yard but all the play requires is a sofa, and an armchair. We are in the lounge room of Kath, an emotionally scarred, sexually voracious woman in her forties. She has brought a young man called Sloane into the house with a view to renting him a room. Sloane is fit – more so, with a shock of bleached blond hair. The seductress becomes the seduced as Sloane ingratiates himself into the household. Kath’s decrepit old father, Kemp, smells a rat, recognising the young man in connection with a violent murder, but Kath’s brother Ed also takes a shine to the new lodger and so a power play ensues during which Kath proves she’s not so much of a victim and Ed allows his attraction to Sloane to get in the way of common sense.

Orton gives his characters eloquence and bathos, which makes them all the more grotesque, but their inner workings, their psychology, are all credible. The playwright also expects the audience to piece things together, from contradictory fragments of the characters’ back stories.

As smothering landlady Kath, Pauline Whitaker has the best comic timing of this quartet of fine performers, while Jonathan Ashley’s Ed reacts almost melodramatically or cartoonishly to Sloane’s bare torso and “I’m an orphan” sob story. Nicholas Gasson is both disgusting and endearing as the vulnerable old duffer, and Paul Sandys’s opportunistic Sloane is a mass of pent-up energy and cynical game-playing.

Director Michael Cabot lets Orton’s play speak for itself, keeping the laugh levels high and pitching the tone larger-enough-than-life to give the world of the play its own feel, where naturalistic speech, hyperbole and epigrams pour out of the characters’ mouths – ah, what Orton might have gone on to create, had he not been murdered!

This is the last week of a long tour and the cast show no signs of flagging. Well worth the trip to Coventry, this production shows us an old classic that still works to entertain and revile. We are all ruled by lust and fear, Orton says – behold the human animal in its glory.

As transparent as her dress, Kath (Pauline Whitaker) makes her move on Sloane (Paul Sandys)

As transparent as her dress, Kath (Pauline Whitaker) makes her move on Sloane (Paul Sandys)