At the start of this year I wondered if the productions of Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane heralded a big Joe Orton revival for 2009. In fact the largest-scale Orton production this year isn't by the playwright, but about him. Or rather it's more about his partner, Kenneth Halliwell. The two had an unusual relationship, clearly starting out as very genuine affection, although Ken seemed uninterested in sex while Joe was out most nights picking up strangers. Things deteriorated once Orton became successful and the two continued for years to live in the same small room, while metaphorically they were now in different worlds, Kenneth growing ever more bitter.
Simon Bent's play is based on Orton's diaries and John Lahr's biography and wisely starts before the two went to prison for defacing library books, when you can clearly see why the two ended up together as they mess around, improvising comedy skits and being physically affectionate. After prison Orton changed his name from John to Joe, established his iconic look of white T-shirt, tight jeans and sneakers, and most importantly succeeded in becoming a playwright mostly on his own - never able to admit publicly that Ken sometimes helped with the plays. Like the book and film about their lives, this version is also called Prick Up Your Ears, a title they'd intended for a play that never got written (apparently the last word was meant to be an anagram) and titles are important because Halliwell came up with all of them; in the play Orton claims that's the only thing he's contributed (Bent seems to disagree - in one scene he shows Joe directly stealing one of Ken's lines for a script) and this lack of recognition is part of what leads to the bloody conclusion.
Of course the big name in this production is Matt Lucas, and appropriately enough he does have The Range. As with his comedy partner's turn on the stage last year, the fact that he's best-known for a sketch show has its drawbacks, in that whatever he does it's bound to recall some character or other from his TV shows, but as the character gets more mentally ill and disturbing he shows some strong dramatic ability. In fact considering how willing he's always been to use his distinctive physical appearance for comic effect, it's interesting that one of his most effective scenes features him stalking the stage in his underpants, the resemblance to a giant baby utterly creepy rather than funny. It's impressive that someone with such a friendly public persona can be so uncomfortable to watch by the end. He's ably supported by Chris New as Joe (his performance has exactly the attitude of arrogant superiority that seems to come across in all of Orton's photos,) while the claustrophobia of their flat (the overwhelming - sometimes a bit too overwhelming, yes the audience have got the hint by now - theme of the set, lighting and sound design is that having been released from a real prison Ken proceeded to turn their home into an even more oppressive cell) is occasionally broken with visits by their neighbour Mrs Corden (Gwen Taylor) who later in the play also serves to provide comic relief as the main characters have little to laugh about by then. Not always easy to watch but very tightly held together by director Daniel Kramer.
Prick Up Your Ears by Simon Bent is booking until the 6th of December at the Comedy Theatre.