Crimes Of Passion, Greenwich Playhouse, London

A drooping mixed salad

Rhoda Koenig
Thursday 23 January 2003 01:00

"There's no word in the Irish language for what you were doing," says a shocked Mike to his slender, languid visitor. Wilson replies, gently. "In Lapland they have no word for snow."

The playwright, of course, is Joe Orton – who else would not only tease the morality monitors with a vision of pervasive perversion, but would do it with a linguistic fact known to every pub bore?

Crimes of Passion is a double-bill originally presented at the Royal Court in 1967. The first play was written three years earlier for radio; the second was the script for a film that was never made. Both pieces are slight, and both betray their non-theatrical origins. But these loose chippings, as it were, from the sadly small edifice of Orton works are full of interest and, at times, delight.

The Ruffian on the Stair, for instance, prefigures Entertaining Mr Sloane. As in the longer play, a querulous couple are called on by a young man who is in search of a room. Wilson's brother, with whom he has had a sexual relationship, has been murdered by Mike. The visitor, however, has not come for revenge but for oblivion.

Pointing to the target painted over his heart (a careful man, he wears it not only on his vest but on his undershirt), Wilson explains that he wants to be sure that he is killed outright, not merely maimed. Before he goes, though, he tells the bullying Mike that his own lover, Joyce, has been a prostitute.

Mike and Joyce may sound tough, but are in fact the sort of people who live in a constant state of bewildered defensiveness. "I'm not a great believer in charity," says Mike stoutly, then adds, "unless I need it." Yet for some reason the director Claire Prenton has had Mike and Joyce – and in this shoe-box-size theatre, too – shout their lines, killing off their vulnerability and the delicate, uneasy atmosphere we ought to feel well before Wilson goes to work on them.

The Erpingham Camp, by contrast, is a raucous affair – Bacchae meets Butlin's. During an evening of enforced gaiety, an overexcited redcoat goes too far, sparking off mass rape and, what really enrages the camp's owner, property damage. There are a few scenes of divine madness, a few of Orton's wonderful satirical thrusts at mindless gentility ("You're interested in religion, then, padre?"). But the play has too many tired gags, and its comic rhythm is rocky.

If the actors in the first play are wound up too tight, in this one they are not mad enough, nor are they sufficiently developed, such as the "highly experienced family entertainment professional", resentful at being passed over and unaware that she has the personality of a prison warder.

Singing in a redcoat trio, the "entertainment professional" transforms her part in "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" (the whistle) into a star vehicle. Yet the rest of the medley subsides into a feeble send-up of corny vocalists that is not used to define or emphasise character.

If you're the kind of theatregoer who, like me, doubles up when Mrs Middle-Middle-Class explains, of another camper, "I gave her some help in the salad queue", you'll be in your element; otherwise, I fear, that the crazy salad here is a rather pale one.

To 2 February (020-8858 9256)

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