Little Britain star Matt Lucas has now permanently withdrawn from the London run of Prick Up Your Ears following the suicide last week of his former civil partner Kevin McGee (See News, 6 Oct 2009). From 22 October, he will be replaced at the West End’s Comedy Theatre by Olivier Award winner Con O'Neill as Kenneth Halliwell, the lover-murderer of playwright Joe Orton.

Simon Bent’s new play, currently booking until 6 December 2009, is inspired by Orton's diaries and the John Lahr biography of the same name (also the inspiration for Stephen Frears' 1987 film, scripted by Alan Bennett). It tells the story of the domestic life of the two RADA graduates in their tiny flat in Islington. In 1967, after bludgeoning Orton to death, Halliwell killed himself.

O'Neill has recently been seen on screen playing another real-life Sixties figure who committed suicide, legendary record producer Joe Meek, in Nick Moran’s film Telstar, released on DVD last week. He also created in the original stage play of Telstar, which had a run at the West End’s New Ambassadors in 2005, and for which he was Whatsonstage.com and Olivier nominated for Best Actor.

O’Neill’s many other stage credits include Faces in the Crowd, The Female of the Species, Midnight Cowboy, The Caretaker, Mother Clap’s Molly House, Southwark Fair, A Tribute to the Blues Brothers and Blood Brothers, for which he won an Olivier for Best Actor in a Musical. His other screen credits include Bedrooms and Hallways, A Perfect Match, Margot, Criminal Justice, My Hero and Trial and Retribution.

Producers said in a statement today: “We are thrilled that Con O'Neill, an actor of such significance, is available to take on the role of Kenneth Halliwell at such short notice in our production of Prick Up Your Ears. Given the sad news that Matt Lucas has recently received, and the role he was playing, it is understandable that he could not return to play Halliwell at this time and our thoughts are with him.

“Ongoing support for our production from audiences at the Comedy Theatre over the past week has been wonderful and given the huge investment from our cast, director, writer and production team, we are delighted that the brilliant Con O'Neill is joining our company so that the show that we are so proud of can complete its West End run.”

The death of McGee, who was found hanged in his Edinburgh flat last Monday night, came less than a week after Prick Up Your Ears opened at the Comedy Theatre, following success on tour. Last Tuesday, show producers said the part of Halliwell would be played “until further notice” by Lucas’ understudy Michael Chadwick.

With Lucas now permanently withdrawn from the production, Chadwick will continue in the role until O’Neill takes over on 22 October. Theatregoers who have tickets for any of the understudy performances can request exchanges for dates later in the run, but refunds are not being offered.

Prick Up Your Ears co-stars Chris New as Orton and Gwen Taylor as the couple’s neighbour Mrs Corden. It’s directed by Daniel Kramer, designed by Peter McKintosh and produced by Sonia Friedman Productions, Kim Poster for Stanhope Productions, Lee Menzies, John Gore and Thomas B McGrath.

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