Review: Prick Up Your Ears, Richmond Theatre (en route to the Comedy)

Tuesday 1 September 2009

puye_poster_4849With their own diaries groaning and a deluge of theatrical openings looming the Whingers found the only way they could possibly fit everything promising in was to trek off to the Richmond Theatre to catch the appropriately monikered Simon Bent‘s stage adaptation of John Lahr‘s biography and Joe Orton‘s diaries, Prick Up Your Ears.

Chronicling playwright Orton’s rise to fame and his volatile relationship with Kenneth Halliwell Phil found distressing parallels not only with the Gallagher brothers but with the Whingers whose own meteoric ascent (albeit to nowhere and even then only in their heads) and similarly symbiotic alliance suggested some worrying parallels. Let’s just say Phil came out of the theatre and headed straight to Franchi’s to get a lock for his tool box and leave it at that, shall we?

The theatrical delights extended beyond the proscenium arch at the Saturday matinée and the Whingers were rolling in the aisles before a word had even been uttered on stage. The auditorium had darkened, the curtain had gone up, Kenneth Halliwell (Matt Lucas) was sitting on a bed on stage and an elderly man wandered to the front of the stalls and tried to locate his seat in row B.

Now either the latecomer didn’t realise the play had started or he simply didn’t care because his less than sotto voce utterances (“Where’s B 13?”, “It’s dark, I can’t see.”) forced Lucas to extemporise for several minutes, garnering rounds of applause from the audience.

The Whingers were so impressed they considered coming in late from the interval if that was all they needed to do to get an audience roaring with laughter. It is almost certainly the only way they will ever generate such enthusiastic applause. But sadly they would have been upstaged by Mr B 13 who remained standing talking to people in the row behind him as  the curtain went up on act 2. Eventually he seated himself and proceeded to open (noisily, naturally) his packet of crisps, tucking into them until a woman in row A shushed him.

It would all have been most entertaining but in fact the Richmond audience was full of annoying, chatty, senior people who seemed to be incapable of not commenting on the action. You would think that the over-privileged denizens of Richmond would have been better brought up better, wouldn’t you? But you would be wrong. It was almost as bad as Oliver! It just goes to show that you can’t buy manners (a fact to which the alumni of Phil’s finish school bear testimony).

Anyway, that’s enough time spent reviewing of the audience.

puyrThe play is fine, very watchable (Bent also adapted one of the Whingers’ favourite outings from last year: Elling) and comes in at a pleasingly economical 2 hours 10 minutes. Little Britain‘s  Matt Lucas does himself credit as Halliwell although he is more charismatic and sympathetic than anyone having read the biographies and diaries might expect. Counterintuitively he is more effective when portraying Halliwell’s darker side than his comedic moments.

Chris New (he of Bent) is a highly convincing Orton and definitely looks the part although when he dons a suit and smooths his hair forward to go and collect his Evening Standard award he reminded Phil of a young Larry Grayson (TV casting directors take note).

Gwen Taylor as the neighbour Mrs Corden gets all the best Ortonesque dialogue and savours every delicious non sequitur and Malapropism; some of her lines sound as much like Alan Bennett or Victoria Wood as Orton (“He put his hand on my knee under the table at the Golden Egg”). Are they all basically the same person?

Keeping the whole play in a single room (the windows are wisely placed on the fourth wall) of their Noel Road flat, increases the tension and claustrophobia of the couple’s odd relationship and helps build naturally to the inevitable and tragic conclusion.

Director Daniel Kramer keeps the pace up and designer Peter McKintosh gets to have a lot of fun with the set which was the talking point for most of the Richmond audience during the interval. Phi has been inspired to take scissors to his old Plays and Players magazine collection and is currently beavering away on a new look for Andrew’s digs.

The death by hammer blow is agreeably violent and bloody but the big mystery remains: why did Orton stay with Halliwell? Simon Bent’s suggestion is that  Halliwell was essential to Orton’s writing. Still, the Whingers weren’t quite convinced. But then that, of course, is one of the great eternal mysteries of the Whingers too. Why is the one stolidly carrying the charisma-free deadweight of the other around?

Anyway, the cast received a very enthusiastic reception from the audience apart from Mr B 13 who upped and left before the curtain call was quite over. Orton would surely have approved.

Prick Up Your Ears plays Salford from 31st Aug to 5th Sept and Theatre Royal Brighton from 7th to 12th Sept before settling at the Comedy Theatre, London from 17th September. You can follow the production on Twitter if you are so disposed.

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31 Responses to “Review: Prick Up Your Ears, Richmond Theatre (en route to the Comedy)”

  1. jmc Says:

    Halliwell gets a pretty bad press from the Lahr book – if the Whingers have the time and inclination, they might look at Because We’re Queers by Simon Shepherd, which rather beats Lahr’s somewhat overrated and slyly homophobic look at the Orton/Halliwell marriage. In reality, Orton’s plays were, at least in the conception and editing stages, collaborations with Halliwell; also, Orton owed Halliwell a debt in that the older man taught him much of what he knew about sex, literature, society and life. Also, it seems pretty clear that Orton loved Halliwell, and that they lived in what some might call an unhealthily close co-dependent relationship (although that is to pathologise it).

    Personally, I don’t think that Halliwell did kill Orton because of the promiscuity nor, in a banal sense, because of the success. I think he killed him to rescue him from becoming part of a world that the both of them, from the earliest stages of their relationship, has sought to destroy. One might better think of them as a terrorist cell than a couple, in which one thought that the other was going to sell out…

    The comparison of Orton to Bennett or Wood seems particularly inappropriate, btw. Both Bennett and Wood are sexless, lower middle-class liberals – Orton was something very different, and much more dangerous, and it is a sad indictment of the UK theatre that Orton has come to be lumped in which such cosy TV sketch show writers.

    • mikey Says:

      Surely the Whingers weren’t intending to suggest a total comparison ?
      Their comment was on “some of Mrs Corden’s lines”. The example they gave could well have been Bennett.

      • jmc Says:

        But that’s what I am talking about – this tendency to mediate Orton through the dramaturgy of Alan Bennett (who even got to write the screenplay to the Frears film!). I can only imagine what Orton would have thought of Bennett, and the two as writers couldn’t have been further apart. If this new play is turning Orton’s life into a Bennett sketch, oh dear oh dear.

  2. Josh Says:

    Mr B13 is my idol.

    I’m so glad you are back, my dear Whingies – you have been missed!

  3. Martin Baker Says:

    Well that will teach you to go to a matinee :-)

    I’m pleased to report that the audience were far better behaved at the sat evening performance. I enjoyed the performance a lot.

  4. mikey Says:

    I first went to a matinee at Richmond in 1973.
    They haven’t changed since. In fact it is the same people – it’s just that the average age is now 94.

  5. mikey Says:

    jmc doth protest too much, methinks.

    And what will the Whingers think ? There could be danger that their site could lose a certain sense of humour and lightness if we are not careful !
    But you comments would be interesting, too, after you have seen the play.


  6. […] really like West End Whingers – a sort of Hinge and Bracket for the blogosphere – they say they’re a blog about […]

  7. mijosh Says:

    Did Phil really go to school in Finland?

  8. BB Says:

    Noisy audiences were not tolerated when I used to second string for the local paper,not the posh Richmond and Twickenham Times,but the more down to earth Richmond Herald (sadly ,it has ceased publication).Judy Miles, the Herald’s formidable lead reviewer would swing round and utter,in perfect French,’Shut up ,you pill!’Or words to that effect.My French wasn’t up to her standard,so I’d tell miscreants to belt up,ever so nicely, in Yoruba.It’s a useful dialect.You Whingers should try it.I look forward to seeing the play when it lands at the Comedy.

  9. Jan Says:

    “The death by hammer blow is agreeably violent and bloody”

    And there it is! The one line that guarantees I will definitely go see this production. Thanks, Whingers! ^_^

    (That’s bad, isn’t it? Oh well…)

  10. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    I’m confused. Could someone elucidate: has jmc got his brain in his arse? (Or might that be me?)

  11. Simon Wilson Says:

    Halliwell gets “a bad press” from the Lahr book?? Well, yes. He, er, murdered another person. Murder is wrong, right? Is there not something pathological about a relationship that ends in a murder-suicide? Or am I just being dismally “sexless”? James Martin Charlton: I have no idea why you think killing someone is akin to “rescuing” them, in any context, unless you are a religious maniac. I also have no idea why or how you think you know what role KH played in Orton’s plays. Simon Wilson

    • Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

      James Martin Charlton is an award-winning playwright and theatre director. His oeuvre includes Gob with Jason Orange, so Take That. (I certainly do.)


      • The theatrical equivalent of a Cycling Proficiency Certificate isn’t an award.

        I should have had one myself, though, for sitting through JMC’s ‘Ecstasy + Grace’ at the Finborough …

        However I do sagree with him that putting camp Northern dialogue into the mouth of a pinafored Gwen Taylor drags the production into the A Bennett/V Wood arena and undermines new audiences’ opportunity to see Orton for the original voice he was.

        Presumably Dame Imelda Staunton was busy elsewhere, or in therapy after exposing her vagina eight times a week in Whitehall?

    • jmc Says:

      Simon, I didn’t mean say that I think killing Orton was rescuing him, I inferred that this is what Halliwell – in my opinion – thought. The two of them had a very strange and close relationship, which is well documented in the Orton diaries & the Lahr and Shepherd books. The latter book is considerably more sympathetic to Halliwell, as (we have to imagine, surely) was Orton, who chose to live with the bloke for nearly two decades. Also in the books, it is clear the amount of work Halliwell did vis-a-vis the plays.

      As to whether, Simon, you wish to judge other people as pathological or not, that is entirely up to you. I just reckon its wise to be a bit more wary in our judgements about things, and not merely look at everything as if we were trying desperately to sign up for Archie Rice’s “Thank God We’re Normal” club…

      • JohnnyFox Says:

        Without the authenticated input of a Doris Stokes, it’s unlikely we should ever know whether Halliwell was Orton’s unrecognised collaborator, or merely the wind beneath his wings.

        Charles Marowitz suggests that far from being jealous of Joe’s literary and celebrity success, Ken Halliwell was an incurable` insomiac who hammered in his lover’s skull because Joe had the ability to sleep at nights.

        After doing so, of course, he necked 22 Nembutals in an attempt to finally get some kip.

  12. sue brown Says:

    As a follower in the sixties of all the relevant playwrights of the era – Jo Orton, John Osborne and Peter Nicholls – all viewed from a converted church in Rotherham South Yorkshire, I can honestly say that Prick up your Ears with Matt Lucas, Chris New and Gwen Taylor was certainly no disappointment.

    The sixties were halycion days where nothing was impossible, the Linoln Theate Company brought so much to life in our then, steel town, bringing us the likes of Erpingham CampLoot,Look Back in Anger and a Day in the Death of Jo Egg. They also awakened a love of Shakespeare, where are these companies todayto take us out of our drablives and into something magical.
    Sue

  13. Chris Says:

    I think Sir Andrew is onto something here. Who’s up for a revival of Chase Me Comrade??

  14. Caroline Says:

    To return to the specific subject of the play itself, I was very disappointed by it – or by the half I saw – and left at the interval. On the strength of the Whingers’ review I booked for the first evening of the central London run (17 September), which was well-attended but not universally well-received, if overheard comments are any guide. When the lights went up at the interval and I got up to head for the exit, I heard the man next to me say to his female companion “Do you want to come back for the second half?” As an aside, although the auditorim was supposed to open at 7 pm, we were all kept waiting in a tiny and increasingly crowded foyer for at least 10 minutes beyond this time, with no explanation or apology and some older or less able patrons were clearly struggling. Then the play itself started equally late, with a large number of latecomers – why? As I left, I was one of many and I don’t think they were all just leaving the building briefly for a cigarette or some fresh air.

  15. Morgan Says:

    It started on time on Friday the 18th (tonight), and the theatre seemed full for both acts, in the stalls at least. All three actors broke up at one point when Matt Lucas apparently forgot his line (luckily in one of the funnier parts), but the play was well-received, by an attentive and well-mannered audience, with a couple of standing ovations.

    The problem I had is that the play doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It is by turns farcical, sitcom-ish, and seriously dark. I admire Lucas (and he certainly proves himself an actor without ego in this), but I agree that he was most effective in the last quarter of the play; the funnier bits at the beginning reminded me of various Little Britain characters, which isn’t his fault but which I did find rather distracting. I thought Chris New was tremendous, and to my surprise I found myself sympathizing much more with his Orton than with Halliwell. Gwen Taylor was entertaining, and her bit of marriage counseling with Orton was touching.

    I’d classify it as a good try, but a near miss.

  16. Phil K Says:

    My friend went to see this recently got to sit behind Will Young. I went to see it with the Whingers, and got to sit behind Mr B13. There is no justice in the world….


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