Diary of a Somebody (Seven Dials Playhouse)

Posted: March 31, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Brittain Photography

Writer: John Lahr

Director: Nico Rao Pimparé


Primarily noted for a meagre three hits, playwright Joe Orton was a leading figure in 1960’s “Swinging” London, rebelling against the establishment with wit and vigour, until, suddenly in August 1967, it all came to a stop. John Lahr’s play uses Orton’s personal diaries, quoting some extracts verbatim, to paint a picture of the final years of the writer’s life,

 When the play’s main action starts,  Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot are already successes, having caused outrage among more traditional theatregoers, but their writer remains resident in a small Islington flat shared with his long-term partner Kenneth Halliwell, who is seven years older. Toby Osmond’s Halliwell, dressed in a business suit and with an ill-fitting wig to hide his baldness, is brittle and humourless, resentful that his one-time prodigy has now eclipsed him. The deterioration of Halliwell’s mental health, leading to his brutal murder of Orton and suicide, is extremely well played.

in covering ground gone over in many dramatisations and documentaries, director Nico Rao Pimparé’s production challenges George Kemp, playing Orton, not only to match up to previous performances (most notably by Gary Oldman), but also to fit in with appearances by Orton himself in several surviving television interviews. Kemp is certainly convincing as the cocky East Midlands upstart gatecrashing the London scene, but he does not quite find the rough edges and air of danger of a still rebellious celebrity in his 30s. Four actors share supporting roles, which include Kenneth Williams and Paul McCartney.

The problems with all diaries are that they give just a single perspective on their subjects and they tend to focus on intimate personal details. Here, Orton’s obsession with casual homosexual encounters is so prominent that we feel entitled to ask: “how did he ever find time to write plays?” Whether at home in London or on holidays in North Africa, it is all much the same and explicit details, having lost their power to shock decades ago, do nothing to arouse interest. As a result of repetition, the play feels far too long.

One of the greatest ironies surrounding Orton is that two of the pillars of the establishment against which he rebelled began to be dismantled within a year of his death. In 1968, homosexuality was partially decriminalised in England and Wales and the role of the Lord Chamberlain’s office in censoring theatre was abolished. Whether or not Orton played any part in forcing these changes is not considered in Lahr’s play, which begs for more context than can be drawn from a personal diary.

By the time that What the Butler Saw opened in London’s West End in 1969, with a distinguished cast led by Sir Ralph Richardson, Joe Orton had become part of the establishment that he had so despised and the adjective “Ortonesque” had entered the English language. Without a doubt, the playwright was a somebody, but Lahr’s play seems prompted by the title of that final hit by taking a prurient peep at Orton’s personal life, while offering little to explain the nature of his genius.

Performance date: 30 March 2022

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