(Ryan Gilbey’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/31; Photo:  Taut with tension … Toby Osmond and George Kemp in Diary of a Somebody. Photograph: Brittain Photography.)

Seven Dials Playhouse, London
The playwright’s relationship with Kenneth Halliwell is given new clarity in a play that is both hilarious and chilling

‘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.

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