“A case of cock over cranium”
The tempestuous relationship between ground-breaking playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell has long been a source of fascination for writers and retellings of their story can be found in many formats. Including now, a musical, as Richard Silver and Sean J Hume’s Orton takes its own bow on the stage of the rehoused Above the Stag, a mere studded collar’s throw from notorious Vauxhall hangout The Hoist (in a touch which would surely have amused Orton).
The show simply follows the pair from the heady excitement of the day they met at RADA through to Orton’s untimely end at the hands of Halliwell and a hammer sixteen years later. But though there is a most macabre ending in sight, the journey there ends up being rather entertaining, impressively told with humour, intelligence and no little campery. And for a new musical, it has a pleasingly strong sense of its own identity, a small-scale triumph in its own right.
Richard Dawes and Andrew Rowney as Orton and Halliwell are both really effective in Tim McArthur’s even-handed production, the vicissitudes of their relationship take in culpability on both sides and though it doesn’t seek to exculpate Halliwell, it is interesting to see potential reasons for how he was driven to such extreme action. The swift growth of Orton’s literary reputation combined with his already vastly promiscuous nature would have challenged even the most patient of lovers.
With such characters and in such a venue (Andrew Holton’s set design is inspired), there couldn’t not be a preponderance of crudeness and Silver and Hume take the ball (gag) and run with it, with filthy one-liners all over the show ensuring a fantastic energy. Simon Kingsley as Kenneth Williams, who holidayed often with Orton, is also scene-stealingly excellent and it was nice to see Valerie Cutko take on two roles, both formative in their impact on the lives of Orton and Halliwell. A surprisingly effective success.