An engaging ménage à trois between playwrights (from three different generations) is played out in the living room of the central character, Terrence Rattigan (played by Peter Bowles in a rare Off West End appearance) in Joe & I at the King’s Head. The venue lends itself to the intimate and almost confessional mood of Laurie Slade’s pseuo-biographical comedy drama, as ‘Terry’ tells the audience – and the spirit of Bryan Murray’s Oscar Wilde – the story of his relationship with the up-and-coming Joe Orton (Simon Hepworth).
In 1964, Terry writes to congratulate Joe on the success of his first play, little realising the sparky, confident dramatist will turn up practically naked on his doorstep with a bunch of flowers.
It’s difficult to imagine two men less suited to each other than Terry and Joe, as Terry finds Joe’s brazenness and crudeness embarrassing and irritating at times, while Joe is frustrated with Terry’s inhibitions. But they say opposites attract, and the presence of Oscar’s all-knowing wisdom and wit lends an interesting dimension. (Although Oscar, played commandingly and with an air of grandeur by Murray, also seems a bit like a spare part and a seemingly random, not to mention anachronistic, addition to the mix at times.)
The piece is a comedy and is particularly funny when Oscar quotes apt lines from his various plays as the erotically-charged relationship between the other two develops – but the writing also achieves a poignancy and sadness well conveyed by Bowles’ Rattigan as he mourns the loss of his late partner Kenneth (while Joe insensitively jokes about him “snuffing himself”) and laments the closeted restrictions he’s placed on himself and his homosexuality.
Joe Harmston directs the one-act three-hander with sensitivity and, despite plenty of colourful vocabulary and suggestive body language, the action never becomes overly, or in any way uncomfortably, explicit. As for the performances, all three roles are compelling – although Bowles stands out as the elegant Terry – and the actors work well as an ensemble.
Despite some unnecessary woolliness and a plot twist that serves to confuse as much as intrigue, Slade’s script is, for the most part, tight and sharp, funny and moving – and it provides a uniquely imagined insight into the lives and loves of the three legendary playwrights.