First Night: Prick Up Your Ears, Comedy Theatre, London

Disappointing tale of a very average Joe
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The Independent Culture

You'd never guess from this show that Kenneth Halliwell's problem was depression.

As played by Matt Lucas, playwright Joe Orton's lover and killer swoops and shrieks and sashays about their bed-sitter in a way that a real depressive wouldn't have the energy to contemplate. He also shakes, like a cartoon character who has stuck a finger into an electric socket. When this Halliwell switches from resentment to rage, as he does a score of times, he vibrates from head to foot, making one wish someone would find the off switch.

Overstatement, a narrow range, and repetitive effects are, however, characteristic of not only Lucas's performance but the play in general. Simon Bent's drama about the profitable, then poisonous relationship between Orton and his mentor is based on John Lahr's biography of the same name, which became a movie with a complex and witty script by Alan Bennett.

But even theatregoers who have not seen it will probably feel that this three-character play omits and simplifies a great deal. It's no inconsiderable achievement for Bent to have written a play about these two in which the dialogue always sounds plausible. But, like Daniel Kramer's production, it is never more than decent and respectable.

Covering the last five years of the couple's lives, Bent shows them giddily happy for a brief period before their creatively obscene defacing of library books gets them six months inside, in separate prisons. Orton emerges hardened for the task of becoming a playwright, and soon succeeds. The greater part of the play consists of rows between Halliwell, a whining-housewife figure and Chris New's Orton, shiny with success and annoyed at being reproached for it. The quarrels never vary in degree or tone, and we don't get enough of a sense that Halliwell is sinking deeper and deeper into a dangerous mental state.

The real-life Orton, his friends realised later, was so used to Halliwell's threats and theatrics that he did not take the final descent seriously – a dramatic situation that here remains unexploited. The only relief from this nagging and exasperation is the interruptions of Gwen Taylor as an old dear of a neighbour, whose sub-Bennett dialogue is often amusing ("The gas board should only issue ovens to people of sound mental health") but, like the rest, overdone.

New, unlike Lucas, is quite believable as a real human being, but one is never quite convinced that that human being is Orton. He is sensitive, he is determined, he is exasperated – but these are all ordinary reactions, expressed in ordinary language. One never gets Orton's irresistibly mercurial quality, his unpredictable slips from mischief to danger. This play about a gleefully predatory cottager and his long-term lover never rises above room temperature, and it's painfully plain that something's missing, whether you call it the life force or creative fire or just good old sex.