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Entertaining Mr Orton

Has Joe Orton’s subversive humour survived beyond the ‘Swinging Sixties’? As the current mini Orton festival continues this week with the West End opening of Entertaining Mr Sloane, Michael Coveney asks comedy stars Kathy Burke, Mathew Horne and Doon Mackichan if Orton still pricks up their ears in Sloane and Loot.

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With Loot at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn and Entertaining Mr Sloane coming up this week at the West End’s Trafalgar Studio 1, we’ve been plunged into a mini Joe Orton festival of late. Interestingly, this self-taught master of the polished epigram and the incongruity of macabre farce, once dubbed “the Oscar Wilde of welfare state gentility”, is the new poster boy for today’s top television comedians.

Three years of fame

Orton had three years of fame before his lover Kenneth Halliwell bludgeoned him to death (and then killed himself) in their cramped Islington apartment on 9 August 1967. And while his final play, his comedy masterpiece What the Butler Saw, had to wait for its premiere until 1969, it was Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964) and Loot (1965) that made his name. Still Loot, his first attempt at farce, went through several rewrites mainly due to the original miscasting of Kenneth Williams as the psychopathic police inspector (played by David Haig in the current revival), but was successfully restaged in the West End in 1966, going on to win the Evening Standard Best Play award.

The plays pop in and out of fashion on the stage, but they are constantly read by drama students and Orton himself is the subject of thorough academic approval by prominent critics such as John Lahr (who wrote Orton’s biography, Prick Up Your Ears, and edited his outrageous diaries) and Francesca Coppa, an expert on the two tortuously stylised and prophetically angry novels Orton wrote with Halliwell, Lord Cucumber and The Boy Hairdresser.

Coppa notes the grassroots power of Orton, bracketing him with Byron, Austen and Wilde as one of the few writers who have such potency. Lahr says that Orton polished the wit of his plays “with the same delighted concentration that he rubbed baby lotion on his face to make it gleam”.

The amoral, good-time boy

This image of the insolent, amoral good-time boy was stoked by Orton’s own self-consciously promiscuous lifestyle and his alter-ego Sloane, who lounges around in tee-shirt and leathers while dallying with the affections of his sex-starved landlady Kath and her sinister chauffeur brother.

The revival of Sloane is the brainchild of Kathy Burke, the actress, writer and director famed for slobbing about with Harry Enfield and James Dreyfus on television and who is currently directing the new BBC comedy sketch show, Horne and Corden, starring the actor now playing Sloane, Mathew Horne, and James Corden (Horne is also “Gavin” in Gavin & Stacey by Corden and Ruth Jones). And Horne first met Burke when they worked together, and became friends, on The Catherine Tate Show.

Horne hasn’t done a stage play since he took a drama degree at Manchester University, but he loved Orton while at college and Mr Sloane is his dream part, he says. “That dry wit has not dated at all. All his comedy comes from people’s vernacular speech rather than from jokes. He would have written an amazing sitcom for television if he’d been alive today, I’m sure of it.” Horne in the first place asked Burke to direct the play; she has always planned to play Kath herself, and owns the rights.

“None of that worked out,” says Burke, “but we got double lucky – hit the jackpot, in fact – by finding that Imelda Staunton was keen to play Kath, and I asked the producers Michael Edwards and Carole Winter to take care of it. I then suggested Nick Bagnall as the director, as I’d seen a great production he did of The Ruffian on the Stair (an early short play developed from The Boy Hairdresser and a direct precursor of Sloane) at the Old Red Lion fringe theatre. Sloane is a unique first play, very much influenced by Pinter. Then he develops his own brand of farce in Loot. I see both plays as classics, no question.”

Pinter on Viagra

Burke’s remarks are echoed by Doon Mackichan, the Scottish comedienne and writer best known for Smack the Pony and The Mary Whitehouse Experience on TV, as well as her stage appearances in Brecht’s A Respectable Wedding at the Young Vic and in the takeover cast of Boeing Boeing. In Loot, she plays the predatory nurse Fay.

“Orton is Pinter on Viagra,” she says, categorically. Like Horne, she studied Orton at Manchester University and has never lost the taste. “He has this wonderful roughness combined with that mock gentility, and he was always fascinated by snippets of quite ordinary everyday conversation which he picked up and then twisted into his dialogue with lethal effect”.

“Quite often, in rehearsal, you want to change a sentence round, or add something in,” Mackichan (pronounced “McKeehan”) reveals, “but you can’t, or rather don’t want to, with Orton. Loot is the play of his that, because of the misfired first production, he worked most assiduously on, so you cannot touch a syllable, let alone a phrase, without upsetting the entire apple cart of his comic rhythm and meaning. It’s extraordinary.”

Prophetically modern monsters

Mackichan’s murderous nurse in Loot is a frighteningly prophetic character in these days of monster criminals in the health service. All of her seven previous husbands have disappeared in unexplained circumstances, and there’s the small matter of 87 corpses in the geriatric ward. The director Sean Holmes says that the Jacobean excesses of Orton only work when you ground the harshness and brutality in truth and reality; “comedy is released by getting the serious side”.

This is maybe where Charles Marowitz’s first production went wrong, going for broke without believability. The lunatic police inspector Truscott, who is in reality a council employer with the water board, certainly doesn’t strain too much credulity in these days of dubious police operations, something unheard of in Orton’s day. “The really interesting thing about reviving a play of 40 years ago,” says Holmes, “is judging that distance between where they were then and where we are now; and what’s changed.

“Orton doesn’t mention what’s happening in the “real” world outside, so to that extent he’s hermetically sealed off, leaving us free to recreate his world as vividly as we can. That’s the joy of it, and Loot certainly defies the passage of time in my view. The biggest challenge is the particularity of Orton’s language; it’s a unique voice, brilliant with epigrams but absolutely consistent in its own style all the way through.”

Wicked laughter

Everything in Orton’s world was strange and maimed despite the ordinariness of his background in the Midlands town of Leicester. In a poem by his surviving sister, Leonie Orton Barnett, on the very good Joe Orton website (www.joeorton.org), we read about their father, a council gardener: “There he sits on the edge of his chair/Framed on my windowsill/Hands clasped, a finger missing/A mishap pruning, lopped it off many summers ago.”

In What the Butler Saw, a search is instigated for the missing parts of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill (they are held proudly erect at the end). And in Loot Truscott turns on the bereaved criminal hooligan Hal (Matt Di Angelo), who is hiding stolen money in his mum’s coffin, with a bizarre tut-tut: “Most people would at least flinch upon seeing their mother’s eyes and teeth handed round like nuts at Christmas.”

It’s that yelp of wicked laughter in an audience that today’s generation of comedians treasure as much as did the original actors in these subversive, perennial black comedies. And the confessions of lubricious sexuality and corruption in public life still retain a delicious ability to shock. Such as, Kath in Sloane: “Don’t be embarrassed, Mr Sloane. I’d the upbringing a nun would envy... until I was 15 I was more familiar with Africa than my own body. That’s why I’m so pliable.” Or, Fay in Loot: “The British police used to be run by men of integrity.” Truscott: “That is a mistake that has been rectified.”

Loot opened on 15 December 2008 (previews from 11 December) at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, north London, where it finishes on 31 January 2009 before visiting the Theatre Royal Newcastle from 2 to 7 February. Entertaining Mr Sloane runs for a limited season starts at the West End’s Trafalgar Studio 1 from 30 January (previews from 22 January) to 11 April 2009. A version of this article appears in the December/January double issue of What’s On Stage magazine. Click here to thumb through our online version. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatre Club - click here to subscribe now!!


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