PRICK UP YOUR EARS: Review / The Lowry, Salford

The Lowry, Salford - 4th September 2009 - 7.30pm

You might be forgiven for thinking that there isn't much more to say about the bitter relationship between iconic 1960s playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell. John Lahr's biography Prick Up Your Ears and Stephen Frear's similarly titled film have, you would feel, covered that ground rather thoroughly. But the reason why Halliwell murdered Orton on the 9th August 1967 has been the cause of much debate ever since and Halliwell has predominantly been viewed as the bete noir of the couple, reduced to taking such action because of his jealousy of Orton's fame and sexual self-acceptance.

Simon Bent's play, which opened in Richmond and is touring to Manchester and Brighton before a limited season in the West End, does put Halliwell at the heart of the story, espousing the very Orton centric Frears film and redressing the balance and the somewhat dismissive, perhaps almost homophobic, undercurrents of Lahr's biography. In essence, the new play is a journey into Halliwell's mind, how he reacts to the changes in the relationship between him and Joe and ultimately begins to close down.

The casting of Matt Lucas as Halliwell was a risky inspiration. We freely associate him with a parade of funny looking and sounding characters from Little Britain so an audience coming to this are going to pick up on various nuances in the performance. Lucas is actually a bit of a revelation here and his physical and vocal comedy stands him in good stead for the first half of the play where Halliwell starts out as Joe's mentor and lover. He's extremely funny and captures Halliwell's neurotic tics and barbed one-liners brilliantly.

There's a great scene where he and Joe improvise their own version of radio show Mrs. Dales' Diary that's achingly funny and deftly illustrates that they were a very closely bonded couple, sharing the same irreverent, dangerous humour and attitudes to stuffy post-war British mores. We also get the notorious episode of the defaced library books for which the pair of them got six month prison sentences, a rather harsh sentence even then and, as Halliwell himself remarked, was probably dealt out to them 'because we were queers'.

Even now their defacing of the the jacket for Dorothy Sayers' Clouds Of Witness can make an audience roar with laughter..."This is one of the most enthralling stories ever written by Miss Sayers. Read this behind closed doors...And have a good shit while you are reading." What the prison sentence and the defaced books also illustrate, and the play does this very well, is the difference in class between the two men - Halliwell's style is more refined whereas Orton's starts out slightly cruder - and how prison changes all of this, turns Orton into the leader. As actor Chris New, playing Orton, recently remarked in an interview with The Daily Telegraph “So Joe going to prison was a confirmation of his understanding of the world,” adds New, “whereas Ken going to prison was a betrayal of his understanding of the world.”

The triumph in Lucas' casting lies in the second half of the play. Here, Halliwell is addicted to barbiturates, is completely neurotic, agoraphobic and verging on suicide. Lucas transforms himself into a man who sees his partner about to become something that they both originally abhorred and directed most of their barbed writing at - the establishment. Drugged, shambling about in his underwear, Halliwell is constantly fearful of the contents of Joe's very honest diaries and Lucas successfully shows how the man desperately needed psychiatric help and craved the physical attentions of a lover who had already surpassed him in talent and success and was finding sexual satisfaction elsewhere.

When it comes, the murder, and despite the audience's recognition of its inevitability, is very violent and, overall, numbing. It abruptly follows a nerve jangling, late night argument between Halliwell and Orton and is the appropriate, if not bloody, full stop on the relationship. The play suggests that, yes, as we knew, Halliwell was jealous of Orton's success and felt he was being left behind but also that his motive may have been to protect Orton from himself, from becoming enamoured of the world that they had both set out to destroy. It's also clear that Orton would not have have been the brilliant writer he was without Halliwell who not only educated him but also mentored him in the ways of sex and society.

Chris New is equally good as Orton, slipping very comfortably into the Orton uniform of white T shirt, turned up jeans, leather jacket and cap. He provides a perfect contrast to Lucas' very physical approach, only allowing brief moments of camp to punctuate a deliberately controlled performance that essays Joe's growing confidence and maturity (the name change from John to Joe is also a significant turning point in the play and in Orton's own prospects) as well as his frustration and worry for Kenneth. Chris emphatically reveals Joe's love for Kenneth, even if in the latter days of their partnership it wasn't cemented through the sexual act. Orton could certainly be accused of insensitivity but he had plenty of opportunities to leave Halliwell but didn't take them. Perhaps because there was a bond them that neither of them could break despite themselves.

The trials and tribulations of Orton and Halliwell are lifted by a superbly funny turn from Gwen Taylor as their landlady Mrs. Corden. She is the synthesis of various Orton characters, the epitome of the Orton-esque in the way she represents a knowing British eccentricity and sexual repression. Mrs. Corden is perhaps a barometer of the public's reaction to Orton's work, reveling in Joe's rapid rise to stardom and then sympathising when, for example, the initial run of Loot is savaged by the critics. She's British to the core and in the play she feeds Joe's muse with her malapropisms and non sequiturs, little nuggets that she's blissfully unaware of producing.

Production designer Peter Mackintosh and lighting designer Peter Mumford clearly understand Simon Bent's focus on Halliwell and Mackintosh uses the set, the cramped environs of their Noel Road flat in Islington, as a visual metaphor for the breakdown that Halliwell endures. Halliwell's infamous collages thus become a symbol for the man's state of mind and the set slowly begins to fill up with them, until at the end the entire room has become a dark cell cluttered with cut up images of works of art. Mumford's lighting also alters the mood of the piece, gradually moving from golden hues to dark blues and purples as Halliwell's grip on the world shrinks and shrinks.

'City Life' in the Manchester Evening News rather cold shouldered this production, giving it a measly three stars and complaining that Lucas wasn't focused enough in the first act. The first and second acts are the opposite sides of the same coin and Lucas effectively handles the flip between the confident Hallliwell and the manic Halliwell. He really is impressive in the second act, completely transforming himself and is very convincing in the scenes where Halliwell descends into the abyss. Go see it.

It continues at The Lowry, Salford tonight (5th September) and then is at the Theatre Royal, Brighton from the 7th to 12th September before the London run at the Comedy Theatre from 17th September to 6th December. See All Gigs for tickets.

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