The hothouse relationship between naughty boy British playwright Joe Orton and the older failed novelist, Kenneth Halliwell, who jealously beat him to death with a hammer in 1967, has always fascinated me. A first boyfriend and I, both of us posturing as writers, devoured their story in Prick Up Your Ears -“ and wondered who was going to turn out like who. The book became a film and John Lahr also published Orton’s coolly detached diaries on his London life and his kaleidoscopic promiscuity.
Prim and educated, Halliwell took the young working class rascal into his bed-sit and for 16 years the lovers collaborated on their writing. Orton eventually won fame and riches, for his outrageous farces debunking the sexual hypocrisy of his time, while Halliwell was shunned as a nobody. All that time they lived in the bedsit at 25 Noel Road Islington. Later I lived next door at No. 23.
Nasty Little Secrets from American playwright Lanie Robertson tells this dramatic story as it unfolds in that claustrophobic bedsit, with the walls covered in Halliwell’s demonic collages. Robertson beautifully charts their intimacy and defiant private world, and the radical impact on each when, incredibly, they are imprisoned for six months for obscenely defacing library books.
Only two other characters intrude. A bullying policeman and a deceiving literary agent are caricatured with Ortonesque excess to show the brutal force of a disapproving society. Director Felicity Burke handles these mad solo spots, and a rambling interlude of camp drag fantasy, less successfully than the fraught bond between the lovers.
Duncan Armitage captures poignantly the failing Halliwell, bald, brittle and drowning in self-hatred. Young Julian Curtis is as cute as a button and while he has Orton’s mischievous energy he lacks the gravitas and working class grit which gave Orton his resilience.
Robertson’s overlong play is not helped by director Felicity Burke’s sometimes limp pace and clumsy changes of scene. But this is a moving absorbing portrait of an interdependent relationship to which the two lovers in their way remain loyal to the suicidal end.
The play and direction over-hammers the homophobia which, on the eve of gay liberation, arguably destroys Halliwell and hardens Orton. It works best though as an insight into the jealousies and sexual tensions in a relationship, any partnership, where one succeeds and the other is left behind. I recommend it -“ and that you read Prick Up Your Ears.
Nasty Little Secrets from Paddoe Productions is at the Tap Gallery, Darlinghurst, until December 4.