×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Prick Up Your Ears

Simon Bent's new biodrama is darkly comic, but helmer Daniel Kramer pushes his cast into overkill.

With:
Kenneth Halliwell - Matt Lucas Joe Orton - Chris New Mrs. Corden - Gwen Taylor

“You and Kenneth do lead such interesting lives.” So says Mrs. Corden, downstairs neighbor to Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell in “Prick Up Your Ears.” Knowing laughter ripples through the auditorium, because both achieved notoriety: Orton for being Britain’s establishment-baiting, bad-boy playwright, Halliwell for murdering him. Simon Bent’s new biodrama is darkly comic, as it should be, but helmer Daniel Kramer gradually pushes his smartly cast production into — pardon the expression — overkill.

The territory isn’t new. Stephen Moss wrote “Cock-Ups,” a 1981 farce about Orton’s life. John Lahr weighed in, writing Orton’s biography and a biodrama about him before editing his diaries. Alan Bennett turned Lahr’s work into Stephen Frears’ “Prick Up Your Ears.” But not only is Bent’s play unrelated to that movie, he takes the material in a new direction.

Bent examines events through the eyes of Halliwell (Matt Lucas). He’s discovered on his bed in their shared North London flat struggling to write. At least, that’s what Bent wrote. Kramer, prefiguring the high emotions to come, adds an opening sequence in which Halliwell swoons to a recording of the ecstatic music accompanying the young lovers meeting in Strauss’ opera “Der Rosenkavalier.”

From there, Halliwell moves into comic self-dramatization as he imagines himself appearing on BBC Radio’s venerable interview show “Desert Island Discs.” It’s a deftly comic way of handling exposition. Indeed, the entirety of the entertaining first act is highly impressive in its dovetailing of facts and comic observation. 

Lucas, famous for his co-creation of TV’s “Little Britain,” almost dances through the role. Halliwell was prematurely bald and overweight, but Lucas makes him surprisingly skittish while at the same time exaggerating his girth to comically grotesque effect. He also makes Halliwell’s pomposity attractively comic and the energy of his instant mood switches suggests what attracted him to the younger, more daredevil Orton (Chris New).

Dressed almost throughout in the playwright’s trademark tight white T-shirt and jeans, New is also light on his feet, racing to the typewriter, almost sweating out ideas for the plays that made him (in)famous.

He gives highly sexed Orton a paradoxical degree of innocence, but it comes with laserlike attack. When wannabe hausfrau Halliwell accuses him of having no heart, his retort “Right, it’s pure muscle” is slammed back with such clean force, it sounds like a threat.

The problem biographical dramatists face is that real lives tend not to have dramatic arcs. And that proves the case here. In the second (of nine) scenes as they return from separate six-month jail sentences, it’s clear Orton is outgrowing the man who began his career. “You’ve changed,” asserts Halliwell. “And you haven’t,” comes Orton’s resigned retort. From there, sidelined, almost agoraphobic Halliwell grows ever needier, more frantic, more impossible.

His disintegrating mind is further exposed by designer Peter McKintosh who increasingly plasters the walls of the down-at-heel ’60s room with the magazine cut-out collages Halliwell obsessively created.

Paradoxically, however, the drama runs out of steam because Kramer overheats everything too early. This dangerously extended liaison was clearly a nightmare on repeat — all the more reason, dramatically speaking, to ensure their frustration and rage don’t boil over too soon. Lucas’ shivering, near-naked, pill-popping derangement is impressively sustained, but the fierceness of the final scenes is so extreme that it becomes disappointingly disengaging.

Mercifully, Gwen Taylor provides comic zest and palpable warmth throughout. Mrs. Corden’s class pretensions and mangled language are shown as the inspiration for Kath in Orton’s “Entertaining Mr. Sloane.” Taylor’s blissfully judged performance delivers what the two men fatally lacked: ever-increasing emotional connection.

Prick Up Your Ears

Comedy Theater, London; 791 seats; £49.50 $79 top

Production: A Sonia Friedman Prods., Kim Poster for Stanhope Prods., Lee Menzies presentation in association with Sean Sweeney of a play in two acts by Simon Bent, inspired by John Lahr's biography and the diaries of Joe Orton. Directed by Daniel Kramer.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Peter McKintosh; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, Gareth Owen for Orbital; production stage manager, Nicholas Bromley. Opened, reviewed Sept. 30, 2009. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast: Kenneth Halliwell - Matt Lucas Joe Orton - Chris New Mrs. Corden - Gwen Taylor

More Legit

  • Richard E Grant Everybody's Talking About

    Richard E. Grant to Play Former Drag Queen in 'Everybody's Talking About Jamie'

    Oscar-nominated actor Richard E. Grant will portray a former drag queen and mentor in “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” the movie adaptation of the British stage musical. “Catastrophe” co-creator and star Sharon Horgan and “Happy Valley” star Sarah Lancashire have also joined the film. Max Harwood will play the titular role of Jamie, a role inspired [...]

  • The Secret Life of Bees review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Secret Life of Bees'

    There’s a sweet sense of sisterhood that’s simply divine in “The Secret Life of Bees,” the heartwarming new musical at the Atlantic Theater Company based on Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling 2002 coming-of-age novel, set in South Carolina in 1964 amid Civil Rights struggles. (A 2008 film adaptation starred Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah.) The feeling [...]

  • 10 Comics to Watch

    Variety Announces 10 Comics to Watch for 2019

    Variety has chosen its 10 Comics to Watch for 2019. The honorees will be profiled in the July 18 issue of Variety and at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal at a cocktail party on Thursday, July 25, followed by a panel and showcase on Friday, July 26. The events are sponsored by Cohen & Gardner LLP. The [...]

  • Vanessa Hudgens So You Think You

    Vanessa Hudgens, Hailey Kilgore to Star in Reading of 'The Notebook' Musical

    Vanessa Hudgens and Tony-nominee Hailey Kilgore are joining an upcoming reading of Ingrid Michaelson’s stage adaptation of “The Notebook” by Nicholas Sparks. Tony nominee Michael Greif is set to direct the reading, which will open June 23 at Vassar College’s Martel Theater as part of their Powerhouse Theater season. Kilgore will star as the younger [...]

  • Moulin Rouge director Alex Timbers

    'Beetlejuice,' 'Moulin Rouge!' Director Alex Timbers on Creating Worlds on Broadway

    In the past year, Alex Timbers has directed the Tony-nominated “Beetlejuice” and the stage adaptation of “Moulin Rouge!” (which begins previews June 28 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre). Here, he reflects on his most recent projects and the challenges of bringing two iconic movie musicals to Broadway within a year.  Both your musicals live in [...]

  • Actor Anthony Ramos Signs With Republic

    Actor Anthony Ramos Signs With Republic Records (EXCLUSIVE)

    Singer-songwriter and actor Anthony Ramos, known for his roles in “Hamilton” and “A Star Is Born,” has signed with Republic Records, the company announced today. Ramos will release his forthcoming debut album later this year, with new music expected this summer. Footage from the signing aired on his YouTube series today. “Anthony is a true [...]

  • Much Ado About Nothing review

    Shakespeare in the Park Review: Danielle Brooks in 'Much Ado About Nothing'

    The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park productions can be provocative, irritating, enlightening or maddening, but they are always fun. In his new staging of “Much Ado About Nothing” with a cast led by Danielle Brooks, director Kenny Leon (“A Raisin in the Sun,” “American Son”) delivers the fun in a slaphappy, dance-crazy version [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content