Seven Dials Playhouse, London – until 30 April 2022
The tiny Actors’ Centre is reborn under its new name, and since this play is set in what was a traditionally febrile, theatrical, subversively arty quarter in the 50s and 60s before it got chichi, it’s a good place to remember Joe Orton and his killing by his suicidal, depressedly angry partner Kenneth Halliwell.
John Lahr’s painstaking and sympathetic work on his diaries and interviews with those who knew him is more famously a book and film (“Prick Up Your Ears”). But there is special power in this staging: two men and a versatile set of four actors playing everyone else, around a basic bedsit and a wall of Halliwell’s collages. For all the merriment of Orton’s pitiless verbal observation (which gives the ensemble plenty to work with), it is as wrenchingly sad as it ought to be.
In the first scenes, George Kemp as Orton is eager: a new Londoner escaped from a dull Leicester home to RADA and a Gower St bedsit, casually mentioning someone called Kenneth – 7 years older, posher, not easy to understand – in the background. Then thirteen years on he is a feted playwright, delighted with himself, and even more delighted with his dick and his crazy-obsessive promiscuous linkups in random streets, Holloway pissoirs and trips to Tangier for “hash and bum”.
Meanwhile, Halliwell is ever more morose, jealous and frustrated by his beloved’s hedonism “your definition of a man is a life support system for a penis”. Also, most corrosive of all, Ken is convinced that he alone has the credit for all that Orton is and all hewrites. The misery of jealousy in a partnership of unequal success and fame is timeless, whatever the sexuality. Many wives and husbands know it well.
Soon they both make you cringe: Halliwell at his spiralling unhappiness, and Orton at his vanity and, frankly, paedophilia: it used to be a giggly gay pursuit both upmarket and down, arty westerners travelling to a poorer country to pay Muslim boys, often underage, for sex. There is darkness on Orton’s irritation that in England he cant just grab a friend’s pretty son and take him home to be raped. But these were the gay dark ages before full social acceptability (it was only just legal before Orton was murdered) yet well before AIDS. It spawned a gay male culture too often unhappy, angry, uncaring and emotionally inhumane. We do not properly remember Orton the boyish mischief maker s d brilliant, disciplined comic playwright without remembering that.
You begin to see Halliwell too as one of that culture’s saddest victims (Toby Osmond is superb, holding the pain visible to the point that his amiable grin at the curtain call is a relief). But the vigour of the staging, and fine performances, leave you exhilarated as well as sad.
sevendialsplayhouse.co.uk to 30 April
‘The vigour of the staging, & fine performances, leave you exhilarated as well as sad’: @lib_thinks on #DiaryOfASomebody, about Joe Orton & Kenneth Halliwell’s doomed relationship. At @7DialsPlayhouse c/o @Make_Prods til 30 Apr. ★★★#LondonTheatre #OffWestEnd #theatrereviews
‘@GeorgeKemp is excellent as Joe Orton’: @JohnChapman398 on @Make_Prods’ staging of John Lahr’s #DiaryOfASomebody. At @7DialsPlayhouse til 30 Apr. #LondonTheatre #OffWestEnd #theatrereviews