Books: An early cocktail

Chris Savage King enjoys youthful cracks from the joker of the stage; Between us Girls; Fred & Madge / The Visitors by Joe Orton Nick Hern Books, pounds 14.99 / pounds 12.99, 195pp / 165pp

IN THE roll call of English playwrights, Joe Orton is the joker of the pack and, in retrospect, the youngest son of the Angry Young Men. His work has been blighted with dud productions, and a couple of forgotten sub-Carry On style films. It took queer politics to thrust him back into the limelight: hence the release of these previously unknown works.

His reputation now rests on his personality, photos and violent and untimely death. He has become an icon of the Swinging Sixties, and through his diary, a hero of the sexual revolution. However apt, this posthumous fame underestimates his glory as a writer, pure and simple.

John Osborne's misogyny and general bitterness was once mistaken for class protest. Orton - another kind of working-class hero - was meanwhile recreating himself and getting an educated boyfriend. His work owes as much to refined craft and ruthless self-education as to his keen eye for contemporary trends and the truly modern characters emerging from them. In crazy farces such as Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane, he drew something you could still call society in microcosm.

At its best, his work had all the bounce and colour of Pop art. He viewed characters with an affectionate as well a sharply satirical eye, and his fury was reserved for the kind of drudgery that wore unreconstructed types into the ground.

The early work of writers shows them wrestling with their key influences and the plays Fred & Madge and The Visitors are no exception. The first is a dirge on repetition and conformity - everything that Orton wanted to escape - and the second, an essay on the callousness of hospital life, an early exercise against authoritarianism.

Between Us Girls, a novel, is by far the most enjoyable of these works. Susan Hope, an aspiring actress, takes the role of ambitious huckster that would later be occupied by male characters in Orton's oeuvre. A fairly silly plot about nightclub work, the White Slave Trade, and redemption (of a kind) in Hollywood is kept alive by the wealth of incidental detail.

Orton is at his best when describing aspirations that get crushed by the coarseness of reality. Susan tries a Pink Lady Cocktail: "for people who have real feelings, who know what they want and who think nothing of driving miles out of their way to procure it... it tasted like sweetened gravy browning." He is also good on the way that environments tend to shape their inhabitants: "She wore her duff black hair very thin and, it occurred to me, she was trying to keep up with the room."

Orton was apparently a big fan of Jane Austen's juvenilia, and Between Us Girls has much in common with those scintillating and irresponsible pieces written before Austen grew into "maturity" and took the moral high ground. We can't know what Orton would have been writing now - his fuse was short, bright and furious - but these volumes have enough indications of his full bloom to keep enthusiasts happy for a few hours.

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