The story of Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell is an unusual choice of subject for a musical and a brave move in this new musical by Sean Hume and Richard Silver. The musical charts the 16-year relationship between playwright Orton and writer Halliwell, from their meeting at R.A.D.A. in 1951 through to the day when Halliwell bludgeons Orton to death then commits suicide.
The story of their relationship is a turbulent one with changes in dynamics which occurred as Joe transformed from a shy naïve boy from a small town into a successful, at times arrogant and unapologetically sexually promiscuous writer. Kenneth, meanwhile, slightly older and worldly wise, begins to enter a decline as neurosis and insecurity overtake him.
Richard Dawes gives an exceptional performance as Orton, managing to capture his salacious side and his transformation from innocence to debauchery and swagger, with aplomb and a beautiful singing voice. He shows a man who could be by turns sweet and caring but could also be cruel and self absorbed. Andrew Rowney is also outstanding as Kenneth Halliwell, successfully portraying his fragile insecurity and occasional pomposity. Mention must go to the powerful voiced Valerie Cutko (playing agent Peggy Ramsey) who can belt out a tune with breath-taking power. Also, Simon Kingsley is a convincing and funny Kenneth Williams (a friend of Orton and Halliwell).
The theatre is a slightly awkward space, in an old railway arch, but set designer Andrew Holton has utilised this to maximum effect. An ingenious arrangement allows the small space to be transformed into an office, drama school, the men’s respective flats and even a public toilet at one point.
Orton was known for being challenging, subversive and dark in his works. Sadly, the script for the piece fails to capture this side of the spirit of Orton. The writers’ intention was, in part, to portray the initial love affair and happiness of the two men and this is partly achieved. The major let down for the piece is the songs. They felt repetitive with few that stood out at all and they were at times mawkish and a little anodyne. The comedy pieces fell slightly flat for me also. The story is a difficult one to tell as the nuances and subtleties of a relationship that turns from tenderness to a notorious case of murder and suicide are always going to be hard to capture. Unfortunately, Hume and Silver don’t add anything new to the story and the plot felt rushed at times.
Sadly, in spite of knock out performance, stunning singing, an amazing set and a hard working cast; the overall piece fell a little flat for me due to the writing and songs. Saying that, this flawed musical does have value and is worth seeing just for the performances alone.