Orton – a new musical based on the lives of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell

Relationships are complicated and your partner’s lifestyle and behaviour can lead to jealousy and low self-esteem. This is precisely what happened to Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton. On the outside their relationship was happy, but all was not as it seemed…

Written by Richard Silver and Sean J Hume and directed by Tim McArthur, Orton is a tongue-in-cheek musical that takes a closer look at the lives of Joe Orton (Richard Dawes) and Kenneth Halliwell (Andrew Rowena) and how their relationship developed from the day they met at RADA until the day they died.
The musical at Above the Stag’s new Vauxhall location, the story of Orton is apparent the minute you arrive; enlarged diary pages adorn the walls of the bar area, sharing snippets of Joe’s world and the set itself is made up of notebook pages.
The available space is used to great effect with sliding panels and a plethora of doors, which come into their own during a surprisingly amusing song about cottaging. The doors also allow the Greek tragic chorus (an inspired addition to the musical) to pop out and join in the singing to keep the mood lighthearted during some very intense scenes.
Richard Dawes gives a very natural performance as Joe, starting as a naive boy from Leicester and growing into someone more arrogant and selfish. His mannerisms change gradually until he almost swaggers around the stage without a care in the world, but somehow manages to remain likeable (especially when he takes off his trousers).
Andrew Rowney performs Kenneth as a weak character, who is quite unsure of himself and should be pitied. His chemistry with Dawes is very believable and the contrast between their personalities is evident. Although we know through the script that his depression is taking over, Rowney’s portrayal of Halliwell as weak makes it surprising that his character is mentally strong enough to murder Joe and kill himself.
However, the best performance of the evening belongs to Simon Kingsley as Kenneth Williams. Kingsley plays the part to perfection – accent, facial expressions, laugh and mannerisms – without overdoing it or trying too hard. The song Form an Orderly Line causes whoops of delight from the audience and rapturous applause.
With a talented cast and music that would not be out of place on the West End, Silver, Hume and McArthur have taken a famous story and turned into an impressive and enjoyable musical.
In their powerful retelling, Orton has succeeded where Stephen Ward failed.
Orton is playing at Above the Stag in Vauxhall until 4th May 2014
Reviewed by Michaela Clement-Hayes