Freddie, Ted And The Death Of Joe Orton has many virtues – set, costumes, local detail of acting and direction, and local detail of dialogue are authentic and carefully achieved; but in its present form it is still no more than the sum of its brittle but engaging parts.

Joe OrtonLondon Theatre Workshop offers a flexible black-box space in a part of London (above a pub in Leadenhall Market) which is not regularly seen as an outpost of theatre. As raucous pre-Christmas drinkers throng the entrance, you escape up a grandiose Victorian staircase into another dimension or few, walking across the set to take your seat. And it is the elaborately down-at-heel set that first takes your eye and sets the tone for the evening.

Designer Justin Williams and director Ray Rackham have reproduced a very detailed 1960s Brighton interior, which feels like a Victorian home run to seed, obsessively neat, but faded and neglected as though time has stopped. As indeed it has.

The play explores the paradox that exists between the waves of change lapping up against these characters in the mid-1960s, as homosexuality is partially decriminalised, and the fact that Freddie (Robert Styles), whose house this is, remains frozen in time through a past loss. He engages with the world only in a prissy disapproval of new developments, which in reality is pure displacement activity, though with an alarming intensity about it, which initially manifests itself as a kind of OCD, while containing more sinister hints.

Bearing the brunt of this behaviour is his much younger partner, Ted (Eoin McAndrew), who was previously a drifting busker, and has ended up living with Freddie while working in a second-book shop. Their relationship is very lop-sided, something symbolised by the fact that Ted is only ever allowed to sit in a deck-chair rather than one of the armchairs, all a symbol of his temporary and conditional admission to this strange household.

Ted has made contact with Brian Epstein and is on the cusp of moving on with the life, except that he does not quite know how to part company with the old…

Joe OrtonJoining the slightly creepy comedy of manners that dominates in the opening scenes are two further characters who are recognisable types from the Orton canon – day Dilys (Helen Sheals) and her loutish but sly grandson Glenn (Perry Meadowcroft). Dilys is a wry amalgam of tolerance and reactionary tendencies, where you can never predict whether her responses will be inclusive and generous, or shocked disdain. In the unpredictability lies the comedy and Sheals has great fun playing with our expectations, evoking the spirit of Orton’s Kath.

Glenn is more in the model of Mr Sloane, his function being to project a knowing, raw masculinity against which the other characters can react with attraction or repulsion, or both.

Cotter has grasped Orton’s mannerisms and speech rhythms very well, and generates both some neat one-liners and some sharp ‘turn-on-a-sixpence’ shifts of mood that he can be proud of. The emotional architecture of the interplay of characters is very well layered too: the brittleness and neediness of the central relationship glitters and fascinates, without squeezing out the moments of pathos and genuine emotions that need to take their place as well. The comic interventions and switchback juxtapositions of mood convince too, and remind you of just how steeped Orton was in the history of drama, especially Greek comedy.

Where is it less successful is in its plotting, which manages to be both far-fetched and desperately familiar. The clunky title says it all. The author’s fascination with the doomed relationship of Orton and Halliwell and how it ended traps the emotional sequencing of this play in a predictable pattern and leaves the central characters anchored in a festering stew of resentments with which we are all-too-too familiar. Even though Freddie and Ted are dissimilar personalities to Halliwell and Orton, the dynamics of their attraction and dissolution are all too familiar to anyone with the most cursory acquaintance with the facts, let alone the work, of John Lahr and the film Prick Up Your Ears.

This leaves the actors little room for manoeuvre, and despite skilful playing from the two principals the play seems overlong for the material. There is an exquisite attention to detail, not least in the depiction of OCD by Styles, and the wary evasiveness of McAndrew, navigating the room as if on eggshells; but ultimately there is more technique than substance on show. The smaller roles, that have more comic freedom, and less emotional freight to carry, fare rather better. Both these actors won a more enthusiastic response from the audience because they had more freedom to invest their characters with independent life.

Joe OrtonThere are plenty, perhaps too many, twists and turns in the plot, which as the over-familiar ending looms into view, tries to project an elaborate smoke-screen of distracting events. There is not the heady intoxicating whirl of Orton’s comedy of action, or the pitch black humour that goes beyond tragedy, but in the end a form of melodrama, which, in turn, is not the real Orton.

In many ways this play is trying to be what Kenny Morgan was to Rattigan, but Don Cotter does not quite bring it off as successfully as Mike Poulton did. This kind of more-than pastiche is terribly hard to do well. It requires a deep immersion in the original style but also an ability to stand at one remove from it and devise a parallel emotional matrix of characters. Here the original story and the actual biography is too front-and-centre too much of the time to allow the original felt-life of an independent play to develop.

That said, the evening has many virtues – set, costumes, local detail of acting and direction, and local detail of dialogue are authentic and carefully achieved; but in its present form it is still no more than the sum of its brittle but engaging parts.

Freddie, Ted And The Death Of Joe Orton
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…