The story of playwright Joe Orton is a dark one. A closeted homosexual, he lived with his partner (and fellow writer) Kenneth Halliwell and rose to fame in the early ‘60s before homosexuality was made legal. As such, his writing was full of scandal, black humour and cynicism as Orton rebelled against the establishment, all before he was brutally murdered by Halliwell who was jealous of his success (and committed suicide immediately afterwards).
Orton contains none of this darkness or wry humour. Instead, book and lyrics writer Sean J Hume and composer Richard Silver have ambitiously attempted to tell the whole story of Orton’s career, from RADA student to his death, in what turns out to be an incredibly camp musical comedy. There are a number of underlying themes – closeted homosexuality and jealousy between the two artists in particular – but the writing simply isn’t strong enough for the weight of the narrative. The dialogue and lyrics are stilted and forced, whilst the narrative relies on a clichéd view of homosexuality. Orton himself is reduced to a promiscuous borderline nymphomaniac, whilst Halliwell is little more than a jealous housewife stuck at home.
Indeed, it’s sex that’s at the heart of this musical – it’s all any of the characters seem to think about. Judging by the quotes from Orton’s diary that adorn the theatre walls, there’s certainly some truth behind Orton’s characterisation. Yet rather than offering a dark exploration of his psyche, the show merely offers a series of camp musical numbers, lurching from soppy Disney ballads to a big Broadway style number about sleeping with boys in Morocco (that’s given an encore!) and even a song about cottaging complete with simulated oral sex that’s not even tongue in cheek. It’s a laughable, crass and tasteless depiction of homosexuality.
The cast certainly enjoy themselves in their various roles. Richard Dawes is suitably rampant as Orton, whilst Andrew Rowney’s sympathetic performance as Halliwell ensures the ending is appropriately shocking. The talented ensemble, meanwhile, are woefully underused. Somewhat led by Katie Brennan, her powerful vocals are simply unmatched by the rest of the cast, whilst Valerie Cutko offers tangible emotion as Mrs Cordon (the couples’ neighbour) and Simon Kingsley’s depiction of Kenneth Williams is hilariously over the top.
It’s these often cartoonish performances that ensure the night is an enjoyable and amusing one, but stylistically the show is at complete odds with the source material. Perhaps in these more liberal times, homosexuality itself isn’t the shock it used to be, but Orton’s life story deserves a more sensitive treatment than offered here.
Watch: Orton runs at the Above The Stag Theatre until 9th May.