Review: Especially The Latter Part @ Lichfield Garrick Studio

Especially The Latter Part

Especially The Latter Part

In 1967 Kenneth Halliwell bludgeoned his lover the playwright Joe Orton to death, then committed suicide by taking an overdose of prescribed medication. Until Joe’s overnight celebrity as the most scurrilous playwright of his theatrically tame era these two men had lived secret, hidden lives writing unpublishable, slightly risqué books. Their anarchic and time-consuming “defacement” of volumes from Islington Library was their only weapon against a literary world bent on excluding them and eventually got them six months apiece in separate gaols. It was their first time apart in fifteen years.

Imprisonment made Halliwell give up writing, but Joe blossomed into a successful dramatist. Jealous and embittered, Halliwell sank into mental illness as the unsuccessful and unpresentable half of their not-yet-hip gay marriage, leading him to eventual murder and suicide. These days he’d be appearing on Loose Women in his own right and producing a celebrity cook book, but that’s how gay stories tended to end in those days. Irreverence wasn’t that far “in.”

Richard Ely’s spot-on one-man play takes a long look at the forces that warped Kenneth Halliwell into homicidal depression. Timing was partly to blame. By the time they were released from prison, society was ready for the naughty boy side of both men but sadly only the younger, better-looking Joe was t.v. worthy now the sixties had really started to swing. His swift rise was the real stuff of pop legend. Instead of having to sign on at the local labour exchange the Beatles now sent for him in their Rolls. Joe’s day had finally come while mentor Kenneth stayed at home and did the washing up, dreading being abandoned for good. What happened next made theatrical history.

Richard Ely’s meticulously researched performance as Halliwell matched its convincing intensity with a satisfying attention to detail, showing how posh failure Halliwell nurtured poor John, Frankenstein-like, into the successful monster Joe.

But for me there was a fatal flaw in the play’s conception. I know there’s a huge Orton cult nowadays but it has to be said his life (and death) are really far more interesting than his now-dated plays that parodied popular farces and infused them with a crude desire to shock.

Focusing on Halliwell’s version of events gave only a slight twist to this well-known story. The screenplay of Stephen Frears’ 1987 biopic Prick Up Your Ears by Joe’s fellow working-class playwright Alan Bennett extracts every ounce of ironic observation from John Lahr’s exhaustive biography and still remains the last word on the subject of these two men and their relationship. Unnervingly accurate as this performance was it covered familiar territory without really adding anything new. However I look forward eagerly to seeing the excellent Richard Ely turn his searchlight eye on some fresher material in the future.

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