If you were to just see the final 30 minutes of Simon Bent’s Prick Up Your Ears, it would be hard to understand quite why Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton were ever together, their dysfunctional relationship seemingly built on mutual resentment.
Yet the journey to arrive at the final, bloody conclusion of their story is a fascinating examination of a co-dependent relationship, of dreams realised and hopes destroyed.
The story is, of course, a true one, with Bent basing his new play on both Orton’s diaries and John Lahr’s biography of the playwright. Its tragic conclusion might be known by much of the audience before the curtain even rises. This does not undermine the tension, however, as through Bent’s clever script and the perfectly-pitched performances of Chris New, Matt Lucas and Gwen Taylor, the touching and volatile relationship between the two aspiring writers is ever captivating and progressing.
What becomes clear in Bent’s play is that both a six month stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure and Orton’s success had destructive effects on a relationship which begins impishly playful and loving, and ends in murder and suicide.
While New’s Orton grows in confidence and swagger, strutting around like a literary James Dean in jeans and a white t-shirt, Lucas’s Halliwell grows only in anger and resentment as he is left behind and forgotten; a sense of loss and panic pervading the Little Britain actor’s performance shattering any fears that his television caricatures might distract from his stage delivery.
Taylor’s landlady Mrs Cordon – part hero-worshipper, part mother figure – brings a delightfully delicately played comedy to her role.
When the comedy and the love is left behind, to leave only fear, anger, hate and the ever-nagging knowledge that both Halliwell and Orton still need each other, Prick Up Your Ears packs an emotional and draining punch.