Orton at Above the Stag
Not many people know about Joe Orton’s work or his controversial lifestyle. An English playwright and author known for astounding audiences with scandalous black comedies and his promiscuous homosexual lifestyle at a time when homosexuality was aggressively persecuted by the police, Orton was bludgeoned to death by his long-term partner Kenneth Halliwell at the height of his creative career in 1967. Orton at the Above the Stag Theatre brings his colourful story to light in an amusing, tongue-in-cheek musical.
An intimate venue below a railway bridge in Vauxhall, Above the Stag Theatre does tremendously well to host this highly entertaining musical with varying scenes on a small stage. It is due to director Tim McCarthy and the production team that the scene transitions work seamlessly, given the small budget and lack of high-end visuals usually seen in the West End. McCarthy shows that a good musical doesn’t require spectacular back-drops or props to entertain. All you need is a skilled cast, fine musical scores and a high-end script. And, of course, a great production team.
Orton, a young and naïve working class man – played by Richard Dawes, who performs with an easy-going truthfulness – first meets Halliwell (Andrew Rowney) at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where an initial attraction sparks a light romance. They later set up home together in an Islington flat where they struggle to carve out successful careers as writers, stretching their precarious existence on Halliwell’s substantial inheritance.
Writers Richard Silver and Sean J Hume explore their relationship amid a social and sexual revolution with wit and humour, focusing strongly on Orton’s promiscuous lifestyle and success before touching on Halliwell’s unstable mental health with sufficient dramatic effect in the second half. However, despite Rowney’s stellar performance as Halliwell in his final moments, the denouement is a little too hasty, leaving an air of aloofness instead of a wave of dramatic resonance. Perhaps the ending, and the story, is better suited to a play rather than the musical genre. Given the relevance today of gay rights and social issues around same-sex marriage, it would be refreshing, and adverse to the usual cliché of using comedy when reflecting homosexual themes, to deal with these subjects in a more serious light.
Nonetheless, even though the ending leaves you a little cool, what McCarthy successfully creates is a humorous, vividly entertaining musical in a wonderfully warm and unique venue, if you can overcome the occasional rattling of overpassing trains.
Orton is at Above the Stag until 4th May 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch Leona Barnet-Orton talk about her brother Joe Orton, his childhood and work here: