Sadly, watching Prick Up Your Ears last night, Simon Bent’s new play about the relationship between playwright Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, we saw all those brilliant Matt Lucas characters, and that famous gay comedian and actor more than we were convinced of the role he was playing.
It’s difficult to know if this is our fault or his. But it must be said that Lucas is incredibly idiosyncratic.
There are moments in Prick Up Your Ears when he’s absolute dynamite. As Joe Orton’s success increases, the bitchy, petty squabbling between the playwright and his partner Halliwell (played by Lucas), who helped and encouraged Orton to write, is superbly done. Then suddenly, we are reminded of a Mr Toad moment, or a George Dawes walk, and the illusion is shattered. And we can’t help wishing Lucas, perhaps now more used to TV and film work, would move a little more slowly for the theatre. Sure, he’s a supremely quick guy (and so’s his character), but at times it seems he’s reacting to a line before the audience has time to.
Prick Up Your Ears is based on John Lahr’s biography of Joe Orton and the playwright’s diaries. It follows the path of struggling co-writers Orton and Halliwell in their tiny Islington flat; their imprisonment for defacing library books; and how, post-prison, Orton becomes more confident and begins writing, more successfully, on his own. Increasingly isolated, drug dependent and paranoid, his partner Halliwell cannot cope with his younger lover’s success. In desperation, he reads Orton’s diaries; the criticism and rejection therein leading to the untimely end for both man.
In this tightly wound three-hander, Lucas is joined on stage by Chris New as Orton, and Gwen Taylor, offering light relief as the boys’ landlady, Mrs Corden. The latter, all malapropisms and inadvertent Alan Bennett-like humour, makes us feel we’d been watching a classic Alison Steadman character. Occasionally, the laughter feels hollow: Bent’s writing sadly failing to live up Orton’s.
Chris New is great as Orton; reminding us of those supremely confident, talented people who it’s so easy to fall in love with, knowing they’ll never love you back like they love themselves. New gets the balance just right: his Orton is sexy, nasty, irresistible and deeply unlikeable, with a heart of “pure muscle.”
But we’re not sure Bent’s new play brings anything new to the story. Prick Up Your Ears is neither cathartic nor uplifting. Watching these two tear each other to pieces over a couple of hours is actually just a bit depressing. Which, as the venerable Mr Billington points out: “true art, however tragic its content, never is.”