A bill finally decriminalising homosexuality in England and Wales received Royal Ascent in late July 1967. Less than three weeks later gay playwright Joe Orton was murdered by his partner Kenneth Halliwell. Within days the life of closeted Beatles manager Brian Epstein would also be tragically cut short. How apt then that a play exploring Orton’s horrific killing has found a home at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre.
Wes Williams’ Orton: Fallen Angel looks back at the life and death of the Leicester-born author and his lover and asks the audience to imagine how Orton’s untimely demise could have come to pass.
One gets a sense of the tone of the evening straight away. A near empty stage apart from four chairs, a couple of books and a leather jacket foreshadows the unapologetically stark direction of this work from James Lee Jarman.
We begin in the smoke-filled afterlife, or purgatory, where our protagonists have ended up. After rewinding back to the beginning of their story, competing and contrary monologues from Orton and Halliwell are interlaced with scenes from the pairs’ lives.
Simple but effective lighting changes indicate alterations of tone and place. The inevitable violent end is visceral but clever. The microphones felt wholly unnecessary, though, and delivered some awkwardly loud moments of fumbling, heavy breathing and locked lips.
This is not a simple story of a hero and villain. Terence Conchie’s Orton swaggers across the stage, declaring himself surrounded by fools. His undeniable brilliance is juxtaposed with a narcissistic indifference and cruelty to those around him.
We’re left wondering what genius Orton could have created in a world more accepting of his sexuality. The same could also be said of Epstein of course.
Halliwell is superbly portrayed by Christopher Hogan in a truly heartbreaking performance. A violent murderer, yes, but a tortured and self-loathing figure as well. A victim of his love for someone who is unable to love only him back, but also a victim of a homophobic society that has poisoned his troubled mind.
Williams’ work does not provide easy answers to the questions central to the events of this play. That’s to the work’s credit. However, it remains unclear what message is being conveyed.
Some of the sixties dialogue falls trippingly off the actors’ tongues and shows a good understanding of the period. Other lines sadly feel overly explanatory and stilted, lacking in subtext.
The two leads are joined on stage by Keegan Dixon as Voice and Taylor Illingworth as Man.
Dixon gives a great turn as Kenneth Williams and dials up the OTT to 11 playing Orton’s outraged elderly alter-ego Edna Welthorpe (Mrs). As Halliwell’s psychiatrist, though, the melodramatic performance takes the audience out of the moment rather than drawing us into the character’s creepiness.
Illingworth plays Orton’s numerous lovers and helps to illustrate the playwright’s unashamed sexuality. One of his scenes, in particular, will divide audiences. Is nudity necessary to show the masculine homosexual desires clearly driving the narrative or, in a stripped back performance, does it exist to needlessly shock without message or aim?
Orton’s playwriting career was tragically short but brilliantly prolific. He may well have set out to shock, and certainly succeeded, but it was always with a message. An aim. His black satire punctured the pomposity of the middle class and the corrupt establishment.
It’s wonderful to see the events of Orton’s life shown to new audiences in a darkly moving and accomplished performance. That being said, the message or aim of Orton: Fallen Angel is not quite as lucid as the work of the playwright himself.
Reviewer: Peter Ruddick
Reviewed: 4th March 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★