Brighton Year-Round 2023
Most of all, this couple capture the feel of the Orton/Halliwell exchange, the chemistry, the aromatic stink of sex from Craig Myles’ Orton, the sweat and self-disgust of Tino Orsini’s Halliwell. John Dunne’s created an Ortonesque, almost What the Dramatist Saw version of events. Orton might have liked that best. And Halliwell, narrating his own death in Orsini’s delivery, been appeased.
Written by John Dunne and directed by AL Fenderico, Set Design by Nigel Hook, Music by Tom Lewis
Technical, Lighting & Sound Operator Erin Burbridge.
Till August 9th
A man, Kenneth Halliwell (Tino Orsini) stands with a hammer, looking where to nail up a picture. It’s a knowing gesture. We know where that hammer’s going. Orsini knows we know. But Prick Up Your Ears this isn’t. This Halliwell assumes we know the lines he speaks already. And if we don’t we soon will.
Joe & Ken written or ‘devised’ by John Dunne in 2021 and directed by AL Fenderico at the Lantern Theatre plays till August 9th – the 56th anniversary of the suicide-murder of the first gay activist writers. It’s the first of three Orton-themed productions at the Lantern, running all week.
It’s an intricately clever mosaic of Orton and Halliwell’s writing, with famous quotes placed like verbatim theatre. Framed with Halliwell as storyteller, they’re delivered not so much a wink as a conspiratorial grin. Imagine Orton and Halliwell discussing their life from a posthumous existence, rehearsing a tragedy foretold quite cheerfully.
Two acts, the first before success, the second in Morocco in June 1967, the month homosexuality was legalised and two months before their end, frame the play in notably different dynamics.
That’s quite enough time for the actors, not the hammer, to break fourth walls. Continually we’re accelerated in the chronology of the couple’s lives, past famous encounters, and back, in this two-act play lasting with an interval around 100 minutes.
How can it end happily? As Joe Orton (Craig Myles) reflects in Act Two: “To be young, good-looking, healthy, famous, comparatively rich and happy is surely going against nature.”
This Pirandello-like drama continues toying with proleptic gestures, like the hammer, or the two star-crossed lovers enacting their own entrapment, conviction and incarceration (that last bit not on stage) for ‘defacing’ library books. This is masterminded through the cunning Sidney, a council employee using the enraged response to his fishing letter to nail the pair: their typewriter’s singular O was the giveaway. It’s not enough that the lovers enjoy enacting their own downfall, Halliwell donning a dishcloth as judicial wig. They expect we’ll be back for Act Two.
Nigel Hook’s set design is a game of two halves as well. The first act is undernourished with props and rather bare – and it can sap performative energy. A small cross with the couple’s signature textual intricacies does service as a single gesture to those fiendishly decorated walls. Otherwise a bare table, a typewriter with nothing in it, perhaps too faithfully conveying they live on air, dogfood and semolina. A single book does service as a manuscript, John Russell Taylor’s study of British theatre (amazingly he’s still at it), and later an U.S. statute book with the drama of Orton’s admission to the U.S. for the rehearsals of Entertaining Mr Sloane the Act Two set-piece.
The second, full of large exotic pot-plants re-energises the dingy mosaic of the first act into a dazzling floor; the props work too. Its slightly shorter length seems a fugue of energy after the involved prelude of Act One. And as Orton says, there aren’t third acts for modern audiences these days. Another broad grin. “Here no one gives a fuck,” Halliwell complains, bored with the boys palmed off (if that’s the word) by the more adventurous Orton. But Joe whips back: “No, they expect to be paid for it.”
Increasingly, though it’s not always crisply clear, the actors walk up and address us. Tom Lewis’ music (operated as with all tech by Lantern stage manager Erin Burbridge) is both period-aware and refuses too to play by those rules, though it’s not used to dramatic effect: it’s the musical wallpaper we’re denied visually, as it were. Burbridge operates (and it seems devises) some effective lighting cues, especially the final one.
The tragedy of Halliwell’s inexorable decline is charted in the couple’s sexual play with each other that sours and stiffens. And his bitterness at Orton’s enjoyment of “commercial” West End success, where as Orton cheerfully decides: “you make your reputation in London and money in New York.” The latter seems his only goal, Halliwell counters. Orton’s tangential affirmation also confirms he thinks New York old-fashioned.
The real chemistry between these two is never more evident than here, or in their on-point badinage. The many sexual intrigues delightfully direct sexual expression with its heart-rending sense of the intellectual Halliwell slowly despairing, as his less-educated but more talented, more adept and far better-looking younger partner forges ahead and leaves him behind.
Orton never has trouble with his sexuality either, but the play is hedged with references to the prejudice of the time, with Orton refusing to be anyone’s martyr. Hence though he invokes “The Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility” Orton has no intention of being a Sebastian Melmoth, shot with arrows, except those of desire.
Myles is Orton incarnate: both chipper and dapper he swaggers in his ”cheap clothes” as Halliwell chides him even when well-off. No Jermyn Street shirts for him, not even Carnaby Street. Myles projects the whip-sharp, but enormously relaxed delivery of what we’ve long come to take as the original. We see him here as perhaps Halliwell sees him (it’s his bloodshot eyes this is told through): enormously confident, performing himself, but not what makes him who he is. Nor quite what holds them together.
Myles’ insouciant havering over whether Orton accepts a commission from the Beatles is beautifully undercut by Orsini’s Halliwell here, who knows Orton hankers to rewrite a script he’s already written as soon as the deal was mooted. You can see Myles’ Orton springing back on his heels, wired, wary, defiant and ultimately joyous.
Orsini’s initially phlegmatic, as Halliwell might have been. The only fresh information I’ve gleaned on his demeanour is from my aunt Zita Jenner, who acted with Halliwell in Rep. She attests to a “gentle, sweet quality” in the later 1940s that time, or our perception of Halliwell, has corroded. Orsini, like many before him, like Matt Lucas, wrenches angst in a slow, lumbering juggernaut of rage and self-loathing.
Unlike some though, Orsini delivers his early speeches quite flat, without energy. He seems – initially at least – performatively unstrung. Yet he and Myles are electrifying in their ripostes, their mutual static shimmering blue in the air like their jokes.
Most of all, this couple capture the feel of the Orton/Halliwell exchange, the chemistry, the aromatic stink of sex from Myles’ Orton, the sweat and self-disgust of Halliwell, rejected by his suicidal father, hating his body, donning his appalling wig just once.
Though not himself perhaps penetrating further into their dynamic, Dunne’s created an Ortonesque, almost What the Dramatist Saw version of events. And that invites us to. Orton might have liked that best. And Halliwell, narrating his own death in Orsini’s delivery, been appeased.