Sasha Selavie reviews the new play about the life of Joe Orton
Was gay author Joe Orton the perfect, beefcake role model for today’s über-promiscuous queens? Oh fuck, yes! Just read his diaries, and you’ll find him passively shagged by random builders, and relishing blacked-out, public orgies in lightbulb-disabled lavatories!
Still, judged by today’s blasé Grindr gays, Joe’s excesses were pretty lame and naive. Tragically, he never experienced the Marquis de Sade thrills of NYC’s Toilet, Mineshaft and Anvil clubs – what could possibly beat being fucked in a free-swinging sling, or being drenched by multiple streams of pure, testosterone piss?
But, for a disadvantaged, working-class gay boy from Leicester, gloriously ablaze with an unrepentant, shit and spunk-stained muse, he didn’t do too badly. And unlike previous generations of savagely-closeted theatrical queens – notably John Gielgud and, to a lesser extent, Noel Coward – Joe was blatantly, fabulously homosexual. Seething with naive, unfocused talent, he hooked up with monied queen and excruciatingly dull, social cripple Kenneth Halliwell, finally unleashing a personal oil-gusher of queer, deviant brilliance.
The result? Furiously gay plays that shocked a superficially switched-on 1960s more profoundly than suicide bombers in Buckingham Palace! Still, ham-fisted censorship’s blunted the full extremes of Joe’s vision until now, with the first full, uncut version of Loot savaging bourgeois mediocrity at Park Theatre.
Would Joe be proud? Undoubtedly. Sure, the poor cunt was murdered by psycho-boyfriend Halliwell’s ferocious, skull-splitting hammer attack, but wasn’t Joe’s death perfectly in keeping with the outrages he so effortlessly ridiculed? And Loot – with stolen cash stuffed in a coffin and the body brutally tossed aside in a funeral parlour cupboard – is definitive, weapons-grade offensive Orton.
Certainly, Park Theatre’s current take ticks all the right post-modern boxes for our preferred, PC-inclusive culture, with an on-stage wheelchair unmissable shorthand for disability rights. And pleasingly, the minimalist, black-and white set – icily accented with frosty neon strip-lighting – never distracts from the true, raw contentious meat here, Joe’s scathing social irreverence.
See, dial back to 1965 and Loot’s first performance, and what’s shocking is how the Lord Chamberlain – a now-extinct, theatrically omnipotent Nazi – could impose carte-blanche stage censorship. Consequently, Joe’s most fondly wished-for outrage – a live actor playing a corpse onstage – never happened, an inexplicably conservative paradox in an era of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll! Tough. Joe – like Oscar Wilde, that other, consummately subversive queen – subtly sodomised propriety in killer one-liners, the theatrical equivalent of the bright, tight, mind-expanding pop dominating the Sixties.
It’s an absolute mastery of colloquial and formal language that, quite brilliantly, channels the voices of the dispossessed and disenfranchised. Even today, the Irish and working classes remain the easy butts of dismissive Tory scum, but in the ragingly homophobic, class-divided England of 1965, Joe’s sentiments were lethally provocative!
So, how sweet to finally see Joe’s poison-pen bile so perfectly, pansexually serviced. A taut, basic plot – thieves Hal and Dennis hide stolen cash in Hal’s freshly-dead, mother’s coffin, with added complications from police inspector Truscott, mercenary nurse McMahon and bereaved husband Mr. McLeavy – facilitates rocket-fuelled black comedy.
Hal and Dennis (Sam Frenchum and Calvin Demba) spurt vivid blasphemies like prime, mutually masturbating, Guy Ritchie chancers, and Nurse McMahon (Sinead Matthews) indelibly brays like a relentless, gold-digging pit bull.
Meanwhile, Inspector Truscott (Christopher Fulford) exudes the rumpled, magnetic menace of a low-rent Boris Johnson, superbly contrasted by the clueless, Dale Winton vacancy of Mr.McLeavy (Ian Redford).
But despite the cast’s electric, ensemble excellence, it’s Anah Ruddin’s incredibly limp corpse that effortlessly steals attention! Unforgettably manifesting Joe’s comprehensive shitting on funereal dignity, she’s consistently treated with less decorum than binning a used condom, providing the irreverent shock Joe always wanted!
Finally, Joe’s masterpiece – atheistic, scatologically erudite and unstoppably gay – has received the production it belatedly deserves!
Don’t miss Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, arguably the greatest, gay songwriter ever, dwarfing Marc Almond, Bowie and Morrissey! He plays Brighton Dome September 7th/8th– [email protected] and London Barbican September 9th/10th. [email protected] Absolutely essential!