Orton: The Musical
Dir: Tim J Macarthur
140 min • Above the Stag, London • Until May 4, 2014
David Robson reviews
On a Friday evening I headed off to Vauxhall for an evening of song, sex and tragedy. Yes, I went along to the Above the Stag’s theatres latest offering Orton, a brand new musical based around the life of one of Britain’s most prolific gay playwrights, Joe Orton, and his partner Kenneth Halliwell. As I walk down the dimly-lit road, and into the recently converted railway arch, I can only imagine that Orton would have been thrilled that the theatre’s new home is located only a few hundred yards from gay fetish club The Hoist.
The story begins during Orton’s RADA days, where he met Halliwell, and follows the pair right up until their tragic deaths in the late ’60s. It flits between the highs and lows in the pair’s life together and attempts to answer the question: why didn’t they end their love affair before it reached it’s final tragic conclusion?
Dawes gives a confident performance as Orton and his zest-like energy fills the stage, but as the musical develops and his sexual exploits become the focus, I was aware that his boy-like innocence didn’t best represent the animalistic lusty lifestyle that we know Orton led. There’s only so much crotch grabbing you can do to suggest one is “up for it”. However, that doesn’t take away the tongue-in-cheek fun that the writers Richard Silver and Sean J Hume have created. Cruising number ‘Another Night, Another Man’ is one of the show’s stand out songs, making George Michael’s previous nod to male toilet activity, ‘Outside’, look like a nursery rhyme in comparison.
Andrew Rawney’s Halliwell is pitiful; he is but a creature lurking in his partner’s shadow, and his plunge into the murderous depths of manic depression is fresh to watch and hauntingly executed.
Valerie Cutko, in both her roles, is completely hypnotic. Whether she’s playing the caring neighbour, or the sassy agent Peggy Ramsey, you just can’t take your eyes off her. What she lacks in vocal performance is more than outweighed by her commanding stage presence.
The night however belonged to Simon Kingsley, who delivered a show-stealing performance as Kenneth Williams. Nailing the voice, mannerisms, facial expressions and even the laugh, Kingsley had the audience in the palm of his hands, resulting in an eruption of laughter and screams for more at the end of the titillating song ‘Form an Orderly Line’.
I am not certain if Orton works as a fully fledged musical. The songs don’t move the plot along nor do they develop the characters. Joe Orton was a fascinating character and as such has been the subject of many different art forms – and Orton is not an unwelcome addition to that canon of work. And whilst it doesn’t offer a new perspective on the man himself, sometimes it’s nice to just have a bit of camp old fun, which this production certainly provides.