Yet more hitching of lifts by contemporary playwrights as Simon Bent jumps on the Joe Orton bandwagon with this study of the disintegration of the friendship and creative partnership of Kenneth Halliwell and the sneering, baby-faced author of Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane.
It’s both a good idea and a bad idea: good, because in the performances of Matt Lucas as the bald, tragically excluded Halliwell and Chris New as the “Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility” (as Ronald Bryden famously dubbed him) we are blessed; bad, because we’ve been here before.
The title Prick Up Your Ears was Orton’s own (with a rude anagram at the end) for his next play that never happened. It was adopted by John Lahr for his magnificent biography and then by Stephen Frears for his brilliant film, scripted by Alan Bennett, starring Alfred Molina and Gary Oldman.
Bent narrows it all down to the Islington bedsit between 1962 and 1967, with Peter McKintosh’s clever design, an expanding mural of the postcard iconography Halliwell created as an ironic monument to their joint endeavours, operating as a tragic back cloth.
Halliwell and Orton deface the library books, go to prison, come out again, changed and marked by the experience. Halliwell was seven years older than Orton, his goad and inspiration, until the success of Entertaining Mr Sloane in 1964 parachuted Orton into another league. The second act begins with Lucas frantically disposing of an invitation marked “Joe Orton and Guest” to the Evening Standard Drama Awards. Orton took Peggy Ramsay, his agent, and the relationship never recovered.
One is only surprised that Bent and his director, Daniel Kramer, don’t have Halliwell use the sullen, weighty statue to bash his protégé’s brains out instead of the factually correct hammer. It would have made the point so much more poignantly and theatrically.
Lucas presents Halliwell as a psychotic child, which is not quite accurate, and New, while not rivaling the gleaming sexuality of Oldman in the film, tries to rein in Orton’s impulses to make them seem, if not natural, then at least comprehensible. These are fine, original performances, beautifully complemented by Gwen Taylor as the neighbor, Mrs Corden, who admits that her life might have been different had she succumbed to the Minister of Transport’s brother in the Golden Egg…
As Joe says, in one of the few lines that echo the playwright’s subversive, bravura wit, “consciousness is Nature’s cruel trick to stop us having fun”.