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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Ears pricked up

It's been pointed out before that Joe Orton was the Christopher Marlowe of 20th century theatre: prodigiously talented, scathing of contemporary mores, homosexual and murdered at a young age: Orton bludgeoned by his lover, Marlowe stabbed by those he counted friends. I've loved Orton's brief oeuvre for a long time; I even  went on pilgrimage to Noel Road to see the house where he was killed in August 1967. His published diaries are very funny, charting his blithe course through theatrical and celebrity London of the '60s. They gain a shocking resonance from his killer's suicide note. If you read the diaries, he scrawled, you will understand. 'PS. Especially the latter part.'

John Lahr wrote an excellent biography using one of Orton's spare titles, 'Prick Up Your Ears' (just move that 'e'...), which was filmed with Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina. As a student I performed in Cock-Ups, a rather brilliant play about Orton's life and death in which a succession of his strangest characters turn up at Noel Road to 'solve' his murder. In true Orton style, one of the props is a huge dildo, seriously considered to be the murder weapon by an incompetent sleuth.

Most of our budget went on this eye-watering device, which disappeared after opening night, never to be seen again. Nothing as impressive could be sourced at short notice from the local sex shops, but we used the incident to promote the rest of the run, writing 'Who Stole the Cock out of Cock-Ups?' in big letters on the blackboards outside the student union. (In those days, we didn't have Twitter or Facebook - just chalk.)

So it was with keen excitement that I went to see a double-bill of Orton's shorts, The Ruffian on the Stair and The Erpingham Camp, at Greenwich Playhouse. From its opening exchange between a woman and a man who is 'meeting a man in the toilets at Kings Cross' to its final bathos over a dead body (the police will understand, says thuggish Mike; 'They have wives and goldfish of their own'), Ruffian is a skilful three-hander, exploiting to the full the dynamic whereby each character shows a different facet according to who they're with. Jack Brackstone-Brown was a superbly lithe Wilson, the boy who confronts a weird London couple, Joyce and Mike. Great face-acting from Rebecca Hands-Wicks, registering every little twinge of Joyce's anxiety, hope and missing self-esteem. As ever, Orton's misogyny is marked, but it must be fitted into the wider pattern of his misanthropy. Paul Robison captured Mike's stolid unpleasantness, but perhaps not quite his interest in the deranged but attractive Wilson. Also, Robison and Hands-Wicks are too young to convey the almost parental tenderness which must sit alongside the sexual tension. (Orton was to go on to refine the formula in Entertaining Mr Sloane.)

With the cleverness of the working-class boy with a Penguin Classic, not of the public-school privilege Orton hated, The Erpingham Camp is mockingly based on The Bacchae. Thus Euripides' tragic King Pentheus is reduced to the pompous owner of a holiday camp, and Dionysus himself to the loutish camper Kenny (this is wittily signalled by his adoption of a leopard-print wrap during a facetious talent competition).

The holiday camp vacation on which the play is based used to be a more central feature of British life, well before the advent of cheap flights and Britain's Got Talent. Now it's merely camp, but the satiric force of Orton's subversive play is undiminished. It's easier nowadays to see this as a straightforwardly political play, with food riots and crackdowns by authority, played for laughs.

The seedy Padre (Christopher Prior, marvellous) and the incompetently scheming Chief Redcoat Riley (Danny Wainwright, funny and endearing), together with Erpingham (Barry Clarke), represent the forces of order (is it too much to see Riley's ukulele as Apollo's lyre in this diminished classical context?). Meanwhile prim couple Ted and Lou, with capering Kenny (Ross Finbow) and his simpering wife Eileen ('I'm expecting!'), lead the forces of anarchy. Clarke gave the Hitler-moustached Erpingham a certain pathos; he's rather like Captain Mainwaring, obnoxious but pitable. Orton was fascinated by female sexual power, probably because he didn't understand it, and Rachel Waring as seductive Redcoat Jessie embodied his writerly fantasies with a cool poise.

I didn't think it would be possible to express an entire holiday camp on a stage as small as that of the Playhouse but director Maria Chiorando and her set designer Lucy Rushbrook have done an excellent job. I'm afraid the runs ends today, so I've left this a bit late, but it just goes to show that however fashionable and of his moment Orton undoubtedly was, his savage comic brilliance and the crisp snap of his wit still have the power to enthrall.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, the joys of blogging! The director of Cock-Ups, now based in Sydney, has just got in touch with me. Those were very happy days...