‘I’ve high hopes of dying young,” announces Joe Orton cheerfully in Diary of a Somebody. He got his wish: the author of barbed, subversive comedies such as Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot was murdered in 1967 at the age of 34 by his lover Kenneth Halliwell. This play, pieced together by John Lahr from Orton’s journal as well as from correspondence and interviews, has often been overshadowed by the diaries themselves and by Stephen Frears’ 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears, adapted by Alan Bennett from Lahr’s biography of the same name.
Seen here in Nico Rao Pimparé’s punchy new staging, its own merits and insights are inarguable. Distance helps: with Aids dominating gay life in the 1980s, and Clause 28 on the horizon, Orton’s priapic endeavours made him seem then like a purely heroic sexual swashbuckler. Now his callousness, along with Halliwell’s suffering, emerge with greater clarity and force.
Breakneck action involving nearly 50 minor characters (shared among four supporting cast members: Jemma Churchill, Sorcha Kennedy, Ryan Rajan Mal and Jamie Zubairi) is squeezed on to the cramped stage like glad rags in an overstuffed suitcase. The floor of Valentine Gigandet’s set is tiled with pink-and-yellow squares which visually underscore the tension between the cocksure Orton (George Kemp) and the saturnine, self-loathing Halliwell (Toby Osmond), who keeps adding to the monochrome collage that spreads like damp across the walls of their flat. A black sheet placed on the couple’s bed during a funeral scene provides a chilling harbinger of doom.
Kemp is all groin and grins in the hilarious first act before showing how the playwright’s ravenous eye becomes simply cruel – his flashes of misogyny and racism, his poisonous self-regard. Administered to sexually by “boys” in Tangiers, he can only muse boastfully on his status as a celebrated playwright. Meanwhile, Osmond brings revelatory nuances to Halliwell. His penetrating stare may be fearsome but his pain is always intensely human, so that we never forget the cost to him of each laugh. Halliwell insisted in his suicide note that his partner’s diaries would explain all. They didn’t. This production, however, comes that bit closer.