★★★★ | Orton, Above The Stag
One of the great things about London is that you don’t have to go to the West End and pay huge amounts of money to witness great theatre. We have a thriving Fringe theatre, which can on occasion reap rich rewards, as it is presently doing at the tiny Above The Stag theatre in Vauxhall, presently the home for a brand new British musical, Orton based on Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell’s intense and ultimately tragic 16 year relationship.

If you know anything of Joe Orton’s untimely demise, you might think that this would be a dark, gloomy musical, but it is in fact sublimely funny in places, delightfully entertaining and full of that wicked sense of humour that permeates all Orton’s plays. There’s no getting away from the grisly ending of course and Act II is certainly darker than Act I, but, even here, the introduction of the character of Kenneth Williams (brilliantly played by Simon Kingsley) lightens what could have been a turgid descent into tragedy and his wickedly Carry On inspired “Form An Orderly Line” received the biggest ovation of the night.

At heart, though, this is a love story. Like many others, no doubt, I have often wondered why Orton stayed with Halliwell, when the relationship broke down, and the writes takes the view that Orton, deep down, did love Halliwell. It is also a story of colliding values, Halliwell’s rooted in the past; Orton’s more revolutionary and progressive. He was very much ahead of his time, making no apologies for his love of casual sex with labourers and the like in various public conveniences around London. This actually leads to one of the funniest numbers in the show, “Another Night Another Man”, which is brilliantly and hilariously staged by choreographer Phillip Aiden, making clever use of designer Andrew Holton’s multi-door set.

Richard Silver’s musical numbers, if not especially memorable, always serve the action and move it forward as they should, and his lyrics are full of the kind of witticism that Orton himself would no doubt be proud of. One slight miscalculation was the inclusion of a song for Mrs Cordon, Orton and Halliwell’s neighbour. It is a lovely ballad, sung beautifully and touchingly by Valerie Cutko (who also puts in a terrific performance of Peggy Ramsay, Orton’s agent), but I question the wisdom of including so late in the show, when one feels the action should be moving inexorably towards its tragic denouement, a song for what is after all a minor character.

Another was the inclusion of an on stage chorus while Halliwell was having his final breakdown. Though musically it works, I would have had them sing off stage, as if they were presumably voices in his head. Their presence on stage, especially in such a small space, is distracting.

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That is the only question mark I would place over Tim McArthur’s direction, whose pacing of Sean J Hume’s masterly book was always sure and apposite. He also gets wonderful performances from his two leads. Richard Dawes is careful to show the connection between Orton’s wide eyed curiosity at the beginning to his lust for life as he matures, while Andrew Rowney’s insecure Halliwell sows the seeds of his later madness from the moment of his initial obsession with Joe.

In the movie Prick Up Your Ears, Orton says, when picking up an award, “ My plays are about getting away with it, and the ones who get away with it are the guilty ones. It’s the innocents who get it in the neck…… I’ve got away with it so far – and I’m going to go on;” words that turned out to be anti-prophetic.
However Above The Stag have got away with it. They undoubtedly have a hit on their hands.