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A CurtainUp London London Review
Prick up your Ears

It's only by the success of others that we can be sure of our own failure.— Kenneth Halliwell
Prick up your Ears
Gwen Taylor as Mrs Corden and Matt Lucas as Kenneth Halliwell
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
The death of Joe Orton was like a scene out of one of his macabre black comedies. He was murdered by his flatmate and one time lover Kenneth Halliwell in their flat in Islington. Orton was just 34 when he was hammered to death and the author of two hit comedies, Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot, as well as other plays including What the Butler Saw. Halliwell, who was seven years older had met Orton at RADA where Halliwell's "pièce de résistance" was to eerily emulate strangling a cat. Together the men had briefly collaborated on writing novels. Another joint project was defacing library books for which they were sent to separate prisons for six months in 1962. Later Orton's career takes off under the tutelage of famous literary agent Peggy Ramsay and the depressive Halliwell was left behind.

Undoubtedly the draw for this show, once seen, is also its drawback. Renowned television comedian and creator of a series of grotesque characters for television's Little Britain, Matt Lucas takes on the serious role of Halliwell. His portrayal is most unsympathetic and his performance of Orton's roommate as a reclusive, draining nonentity has the result of making Orton seem nicer than he probably was. This unbalances the relationship so that we cannot see what attraction there could have been in the first place, and worse, we have no pity for Halliwell. Perhaps our picture of him is coloured by us all knowing what he did to end the life of Orton? This is of course belies my feeling that we are always watching Matt Lucas rather than Kenneth Halliwell. This is partly down to Lucas' distinctive physical appearance, alopecia as a child robbed him of every hair on his body and bullying and cruel jibes might have made him seek comfort in food. The result is that it is hard for him to look like anyone except Matt Lucas and not the bewigged, faux sophisticate Halliwell.

Simon Bent's script, based the John Lahr biography of Orton, doesn't help as the first half hour seems to be non-stop quips from Halliwell. The jokey and crude sexual punchlines create a smokescreen over character and the beginning of the show seems more like weak stand up than a play. Director Daniel Kramer hasn't helped either, allowing Lucas to rush around in his underwear as if physical jerks and throwing prescription medicines around convey mental turmoil. The effect is frenetic and embarrassing.

I liked Chris New's Orton, probably more than I should have. With his classic white tee shirt, jeans and sneakers and John Lennon cap his boyish good looks are perfect as is his jaunty manner. His promiscuity is talked about and he flirts delightfully with Gwen Taylor as the affable Mrs Corden, his cheery landlady. When Orton is accused by Halliwell of having no heart what we are watching here is a failed marriage with a clinging, annoying, nagging partner. Orton's reply, to Halliwell's jibe about his having no heart, that his heart is pure muscle is classic.

The ceiling is painted in large pink and yellow squares like a Battenburg cake, that confection of pink and yellow sponge held together with jam and wrapped in pink fondant icing that Orton featured in his plays. Designer Peter McKintosh has recreated their 16 ft by 12 ft room in immaculate detail with the collaged walls gradually filling up with prints from great art as time goes by. If only the same attention had been paid to casting!

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Prick up your Ears
Written by Simon Bent
Based on the biography by John Lahr and Joe Orton's diaries
Directed by Daniel Kramer

Starring: Chris New, Matt Lucas and Gwen Taylor
Design: Peter McKintosh
Lighting: Peter Mumford
Sound: Gareth Owen
Movement: Philippe Giraudeau
Fights: Terry King
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6637
Booking to 6th December 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 1st October 2009 performance at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London SW1(Tube: Piccadilly Circus)
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