Diary Of A Somebody (Review – Onstage)

Diary Of A Somebody (Review – Onstage)

The Tristan Bates Theatre at the Actors Centre in Covent Garden has had an impressive makeover and metamorphosed into the Seven Dials Playhouse opening earlier this year. For their second production they have revived a piece from the mid-1980s although the writing actually goes back twenty years earlier than that. Diary Of A Somebody is credited to John Lahr though technically he might be said to be the arranger/editor. For the actual words are those of Joe Orton as recorded in a journal that he decided to keep in 1966/7. This covered what turned out to be the last eight months of his life at the end of which he was brutally bludgeoned to death by his partner Kenneth Halliwell; the latter then took his own life. It was a notorious cause célèbre which brought to a sudden end the meteoric rise to fame of a playwright who would almost certainly have gone on to greater glory.

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For Orton had only written a mere handful of plays and had at first struggled to find acclaim. Loot turned the tide, and he was lionised by his contemporaries; he was even commissioned to write a screenplay for the Beatles third film (sadly, this never came to fruition). In between writing What The Butler Saw and engaging in an energetic sex life in both North London and North Africa, he wrote the diary entries which give a candid overview of Orton’s tempestuous relationship with the increasingly embittered and unstable Halliwell. The audience are left wondering why they stayed together though it is, of course, important to remember that the viewpoint of events is highly subjective. Although Halliwell comes across as vain, temperamental and habitually difficult, constantly whining and threatening suicide, this is all from Orton’s perspective and possibly paints a rather biased picture. One of the strengths of the piece is that it suggests that Orton, with his need to shock and challenge the society in which he lived, could be equally impossible to live with.

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As the script is based on diary entries, the show is very episodic with a multitude of scenes that tumble over one another and evoke the era of the Swinging Sixties. After a while this becomes a trifle wearing and I started to find myself longing for a scene which explored matters in greater depth, and which gave the actors time to develop their characters more fully. One of the most successful points of the play comes at the end of the first half when a, for once, extended scene between Orton and Halliwell is allowed to flourish more naturally and starts to get to the heart of what made the two men tick; alas this is rather fleeting. George Kemp is excellent in the central role and, as well as having a look of the real Orton about him, he captures the charisma and mischievous tone of the writer especially in his direct addresses to the audience. Toby Osmond as Halliwell seems rather one note at first but I think that comes back to the subjective nature of the diary entries; it was actually a clever performance which gave us Orton’s view of the man he both loved and despised. It was one which definitely grew on me and even managed to elicit some sympathy as the man’s desperation just to be noticed became more palpable.

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There are some forty eight characters listed in the programme. As Kemp and Osmond remain in fixed roles, the remaining four cast members (Jemma Churchill – who gets to utter the most hilarious line in the whole piece – Jamie Zubairi, Sorcha Kennedy and Ryan Rajan Mal) have a great deal of work to do in presenting sketches of all the others. It’s a whirl of characterisation which mostly works and sometimes doesn’t. Well known names pop up all over the place – Paul McCartney, Brian Epstein, legendary theatrical agent Peggy Ramsey, Kenneth Cranham, Kenneth Williams (too many Kenneths) – along with members of the Orton family, his casual pick ups and basically anyone else who crossed his path. There’s also Orton’s mischievous alter ego character Edna Welthorpe (Mrs) embodied successfully by Churchill as a prototype Mary Whitehouse. I enjoyed Zubairi’s camp turn as Kenneth Williams who, while looking nothing like his subject, captures the nasal tone and vocal inflections well. I hope that he eventually gets a little more secure with the script but as he’s playing no less than 17 roles perhaps some hesitation is forgivable. The whole is directed in sprightly fashion by Nico Rao Pimparé but perhaps the brakes might have been judiciously applied on occasion.

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Space is not at a premium in the auditorium but the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere this creates resonates with Halliwell’s experience of being shut in and neglected. Valentine Gigandet has provided a multi-function day-glo floored set which evokes the era perfectly and there’s a great soundtrack (Beatles heavy) which also helps the context – not to mention the pervasive smell of herbal cigarettes so redolent of the so called permissive society. This heady package is contrasted against some stark realities; the world at large was still easily shocked and even repulsed by same sex relationships, arts censorship (particularly in the world of the theatre) was still rife and people were expected to know their place in the class structure and adhere to it. Orton flouted that and pilloried it mercilessly in his plays and this dramatization of his diaries helps us to understand how and why. It’s a heavy slice of nostalgia but with a sigh of relief we note that we’ve thankfully moved on.

Production photos by Brittain Photography
This review first appeared (in abbreviated form) on LTR

Diary Of A Somebody is at Seven Dials Playhouse – click here

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