This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
Consistent with a mission statement in which it commits “exclusively to new writing”, the Hope Theatre is staging the first ever professional production of this debut play. However, calling it “new” may be stretching a point, as it was actually written 55 years ago. This belated production by Rough Haired Pointer is given added poignancy by the fact that the theatre is situated just a few minutes walk from the Islington bed-sit where the play’s writer, Joe Orton, lived and died with his partner, Kenneth Halliwell. Orton is best known for just three hit plays, the first of which appeared in London five years after this one was written, but his style of black comedy is so distinctive and enduring that the adjective “Ortonesque” has now entered the Oxford English Dictionary. Raised on a Leicester council estate, the writer flourished in the London of the 1950’s and 60s, but was still constrained by the conventions of the drab post-War era and by the persecution of gay men. Fred and Madge are thought to be based upon Orton’s own parents, which would explain why it feels as if this play tells us more about the writer himself than any of his other works. The titular characters, played in effective deadpan style by Jake Curran and Jodyanne Richardson, work respectively pushing a large boulder up a hill repeatedly and sieving water. The play’s theme, the tedium of everyday life, is one that is never easy to depict without sending an audience to sleep and this places an added burden on the dialogue to keep us amused. Fred and Madge ponder on things such as whether they should get bats or locusts as pets, illustrating how Orton’s feel for the banality of ordinary conversation and for absurdism combine. This was an era when comedy was the common antidote to austerity and the anarchic humour of The Goon Show shines through as a clear influence. The structure of a play within a play emerges early on, but then fades away, leaving the piece shapeless and lacking narrative drive. This is a work that is a long way from being fully developed and it seems possible that Orton gave little thought to it being staged, perhaps writing it to vent his own frustrations and to rail against his family. In the later stages, as the characters prepare to leave for India, Orton seems to be telling them to broaden their horizons and face up to a changing world, whilst still realising that working class folk of that era would be ill equipped to do so. For all its failings, and there are many, Fred and Madge reveals to us a writer who saw the theatre as a means for self-expression, a place where he could cast off the straightjacket that normal life forced him to wear. Although there is little of the sexual innuendo which characterised the later plays, liberal amounts of cross dressing give this production a distinctive Ortonesque feel. Christopher Hone’s village hall set and Mary Franklin’s direction, which feigns bumbling amateurism, ensure that the production does not give the play undue respect. In a variety of roles, Andy Brock, Loz Keystone, Geordie Wright and Jordan Mallory-Skinner are all excellent, the latter giving passable impersonations of Roy Orbison and other 1950s crooners in pleasant musical interludes. Fred and Madge is notable more for its interest value than its merit and this production certainly shows us why it has taken more than half a century to bring the play to the professional stage. However, there is more here than just fodder for theatre academics; this talented company has also managed to wring out a fair amount of entertainment, which is quite an achievement.
Performance date: 18 September 2014