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Review Round-up: Critics Prick Up Their Ears?

Prick Up Your Ears, Simon Bent's study of the relationship between playwright Joe Orton and his lover-turned-killer Kenneth Halliwell, opened at the West End's Comedy Theatre on Wednesday (30 September, previews from 17 September), following a short regional tour (See News, 22 Jun 2009).

The play, 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), examines the relationship between the two writers which ended tragically in 1967 when Kenneth Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death before committing suicide.

Directed by Daniel Kramer (Bent), it stars Chris New as Orton and comedy actor Matt Lucas as Halliwell, and is currently booking until 6 December 2009.

Critical reactions were decidedly mixed. While some found Bent's play over-simplistic and its pace “ruinously fast”, others, particularly the Daily Expess' Paul Callan. enjoyed a “gripping study of the poison of injuries”. There was similar disagreements over the performances, particularly of Matt Lucas. For some, his performance was “outstanding”, “harrowing” and “precisely gauged”, whereas in the opinion of some, particularly the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts he should “stick to the box”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “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 … 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 neighbour, 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'.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) - “I constantly felt the play was telling me things I knew from the Lahr biography and the Orton diaries – that Halliwell felt diminished by Orton's fame, that he loved his more celebrated companion, and that there was a chip of ice in Orton's heart. The attraction is the casting of Little Britain's Matt Lucas as Halliwell, and he certainly doesn't disgrace himself. Lucas' fault, partly attributable to the director Daniel Kramer, is that he reveals his hand too early. With his shaking leg, his endless finger-flexing, his sudden, peremptory movements, he signals almost from the start that Halliwell is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. With a lot more stillness, this would be a better performance. Chris New, on the other hand, rightly invests the cocky, clever, aspirational Orton with a quick, darting, impatient energy. And there is a fine performance from Gwen Taylor as the long-married landlady who at one point wistfully recalls that in her youth she had many admirers 'including the now minister of transport's brother'. But, although the play is decently done, I would rather we remembered Orton for the subversive wit of his plays than his gruesome death.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “It is Matt Lucas as Halliwell who is the big draw in Daniel Kramer’s production, and the star of Little Britain delivers a performance that is complex and precisely gauged, albeit hyperbolic. Rather than being a restrained Salieri to Orton’s flashy Mozart, Lucas’s Halliwell is hyperactive, a quaking, shrieking, reeling mixture of creative whirlwind, backbiter, martyr, ogre and baby … Bent’s script, drawing on Orton’s diaries and John Lahr’s biography, occasionally oversimplifies psychological issues … In the end, though, this is an actors’ piece - and above all a vehicle for Lucas. He conveys raw power and fine detail, demonstrating that he is an actor capable of fierce intensity, but it is hard to find his performance sympathetic, and Prick Up Your Ears, while amusing and finally poignant, lacks real emotional punch.”
  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail - “Matt Lucas, who is best known as the fattie in TV's Little Britain, errs in quite the other direction. He overdoes things to the point that his performance is in danger of becoming an embarrassment … The pace here is ruinously fast. Both Mr Lucas and handsome Chris New, playing Orton, take things at such a whack that they pant and tremble. Mr Lucas sweats so much that he has to keep patting his bald head. Director Daniel Kramer should slow things by a third, at least. It's not as if the evening, at just over two hours, is too long. Much is lost in the hurry. Comic relief is meant to come from the men's dotty landlady, Mrs. Corden, who has several Alan Bennett-ish lines such as 'killed by the Gas Board' (when discussing a suicide) … When Halliwell is doing some thinking, Mr. Lucas strokes his chin. When Halliwell is tense, Mr. Lucas makes his eyes dart from left to right and back, quickly, like a blind man speed-reading Braille. Much of the time he seems incapable of standing still. Nor are matters much helped by him repeatedly showing us his vast white belly. A bleached whale … Alas, thanks to misguided direction or shortage of stage experience (or both), all we get is clamour and din and gurning. Stick to the box, Matt.”
  • Rhoda Koenig in the Independent (three stars) - “You'd never guess from this show that Kenneth Halliwell's problem was depression. As played by Matt Lucas, playwright Joe Orton's lover and killer swoops and shrieks and sashays about their bed-sitter in a way that a real depressive wouldn't have the energy to contemplate. He also shakes, like a cartoon character who has stuck a finger into an electric socket. When this Halliwell switches from resentment to rage, as he does a score of times, he vibrates from head to foot, making one wish someone would find the off switch … The greater part of the play consists of rows between Halliwell, a whining-housewife figure and Chris New's Orton, shiny with success and annoyed at being reproached for it. The quarrels never vary in degree or tone, and we don't get enough of a sense that Halliwell is sinking deeper and deeper into a dangerous mental state … New, unlike Lucas, is quite believable as a real human being, but one is never quite convinced that that human being is Orton. He is sensitive, he is determined, he is exasperated – but these are all ordinary reactions, expressed in ordinary language. One never gets Orton's irresistibly mercurial quality, his unpredictable slips from mischief to danger. This play about a gleefully predatory cottager and his long-term lover never rises above room temperature, and it's painfully plain that something's missing, whether you call it the life force or creative fire or just good old sex.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) - “The trouble is that it has little to add to those earlier works. Bent does his best, but unlike the book and the film, the play often seems exploitative. In the early scenes, he attempts an Ortonesque style, complete with a filthy parody of Mrs. Dale’s Diary and a comic middle-aged neighbour who gets secret agents muddled up with literary agents … Chris New memorably nails Orton’s growth in confidence, heartlessness and bright-eyed delight in his own success and cocksure sexuality. Better yet is Matt Lucas as Halliwell, hairless and flabby and with skin that puts one in mind of the white underbelly of a clammy dead fish. His pill popping desperation is harrowing to behold and by the end you fully understand why he killed the thing he loved. But what a relief it was to escape the fetid atmosphere of Bent’s play for the cool air of the London night. Even the exhaust fumes seemed healthy in comparison with this doomed relationship.”
  • Paul Callan in the Daily Express (five stars) - “The play is a gripping study of the poison of injuries, of one man’s increasing - and eventually murderous - paranoia and jealousy of his lover’s exceptional talent and success. Bent has rightly concentrated the essence of the play on this madness and the fiercely corrupting jealousies of Halliwell … And Matt Lucas, in what is an inspired piece of casting, is memorable as the hapless and equally deserved Halliwell, who is caught up in the slipstream of Orton’s talent. There is always a danger that, when a clown plays Hamlet, it does not succeed ... But it is a tribute to Lucas’ outstanding talent that you quickly forget he is one half of one of Britain’s most outstanding comic duo. He uses his gift of comic timing to great advantage, particularly in the play’s first half, but what comes across increasingly is the quite shattering fury and anger that he is able to build up in his burgeoning hatred of Orton … It would have been easy to have gone well over the top with this part, but Lucas gradually builds up his stream of resentment, until you are sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for the inevitable explosion. Chris New, as Orton, draws out the playwright’s amoral and taunting nature. Although it is clear he still feels some affection for his worn-out ex-lover, you also know that he wants to spread his artistic wings and free the claustrophobia of their oppressive relationship.”

    ** DON’T MISS our Whatsonstage.com Outing to PRICK UP YOUR EARS on 12 November 2009 – inc a FREE poster & access to our exclusive post-show Q&A - all for only £34.50!! - click here for details **

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