Joe Orton three ways

Wednesday, November 6, 1991

Joe Orton three ways

Ménage à Trois: an evening with Joe Orton
Missing Link Productions
Crossroads Theatre, Darlinghurst, Sydney
Tues-Sat until Nov 17
Reviewed by Philip Bilton-Smith

If it does nothing else, Ménage à Trois: an evening with Joe Orton shows that, 24 years after his death, it is the figure of Orton himself that looms large, more enduring than his own characters.

Missing Link Productions gives us three short plays in an evening at the appropriately unpretentious and intimate Crossroads Theatre: one by Orton, one based on Orton and one about Orton.

The Ruffian on the Stair, Orton's first play, has three characters with lots to hide, is bleakly funny and is underscored with menace (Orton doing Pinter). Ruffian seems dated now, the targets of Orton's satire having shifted somewhat. Just the same, it is a finely (if not traditionally) constructed piece that works well on an entertainment level and provides a good starting place for the other plays that in Ménage à Trois.

The Death of Joe Orton, an early play by Louis Nowra, is a farcical murder mystery of sorts which borders on the absurd (Nowra doing Orton). Nowra borrows Inspector Truscott from Orton's Loot to investigate the death of his (Truscott's) creator.

In a fast-paced romp, a small-time capitalist who runs a boarding house has all her generosities dismissed by the "Marxist polemic" of a unionised "cleaning lady" with a penchant for art criticism. "Fascist pigs" Truscott and Rogers, hell bent on smashing the criminally inclined proletariat, display some dubious investigative methods whilst sniffing around the lives and deaths of Orton and lover Kenneth Halliwell, whose coffins occupy the stage for the length of the piece. For all its lampoonery and clever word play, however, Death is no Loot.

The Realm of Wasps (by Steven Dawson) might have fared better were it not for the biographical film Prick Up Your Ears. Realm covers much the same territory as Prick (that is, the life and times of a working-class playwright and his boyfriend), and whilst Dawson's play predates the film, the ubiquity of the latter has ensured its notoriety.

Nevertheless, Dawson's version of the Orton-Halliwell story is well constructed and economical, and succeeds over Prick in allowing Joe and Kenneth to speak for themselves, a contrast to the "agent and biographer as tour guides" device which apparently makes the film more accessible. The characterisation of Orton and Halliwell in Realm is excellent, and there is something refreshing about this less commoditised mini-biography.

Ménage à Trois is a well-conceived, intimate and immediate evening with Joe Orton. See it until November 17. It won't be coming out on video.

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