Prick Up Your Ears

Previewed 17 September 2009, Opened 30 September 2009, Closed on 15 November 2009 at the Comedy Theatre (now Harold Pinter Theatre)

Simon Bent's new play Prick Up Your Ears in London starring Con O'Neill

1962. Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton - RADA graduates, aspiring playwrights, and sometime lovers - plot their rightful place at the centre of London's literary scene whilst engaged in a secret crusade to 'improve' the local library books, all in the worst possible taste of course, and acting out their own versions of popular radio dramas... with an extra dash of innuendo. But after a short interlude at Her Majesty's pleasure, Joe is about to become the greatest, and most notorious comic playwright since Oscar Wilde, whilst Ken stays indoors re-decorating, reduced to sharing Joe's success with their neighbour, Mrs Corden, over tea and a slice of battenburg.

Now Simon Bent's darkly funny and moving play Prick Up Your Ears imagines what really happened when, after years of creative collaboration, the door slammed shut and Kenneth was home alone. It tells the sensational story behind the domestic life of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, holed up in a tiny flat in Islington, trading well-trodden insults and hilarious put-downs like any old married couple. Prick Up Your Ears is inspired by the John Lahr biography and the diaries of Joe Orton and is produced in London with the full support of the Orton Estate, including Leonie Orton, Joe Orton's younger sister.

The original cast featured Matt Lucas as 'Kenneth Halliwell', Chris New as 'Joe Orton' and Gwen Taylor as 'Mrs Corden'.

Directed by Daniel Kramer, with choreography by Philippe Girudeau, designs by Peter McKintosh, lighting by Peter Mumford, and sound by Gareth Owen.

Please Note: Following the death of his former civil partner Kevin McGee on 6 October 2009, Matt Lucas has indefinitely withdrawn from this production. The producers of Prick Up Your Ears have issued the following statement: "Our thoughts are with Matt whom we are in constant touch with. Until further notice his role of Kenneth Halliwell in the West End production of Prick Up Your Ears will be played by his understudy Michael Chadwick." It was then announced that Con O'Neill would join the cast in the role of 'Kenneth Halliwell' from 22 October 2009 - the producers issued the following statement: "We are thrilled that Con O'Neill, an actor of such significance, is available to take on the role of 'Kenneth Halliwell' at such short notice in our production of Prick Up Your Ears. Given the sad news that Matt Lucas has recently received, and the role he was playing, it is understandable that he could not return to play Halliwell at this time and our thoughts are with him. On-going support for our production from audiences at the Comedy Theatre over the past week has been wonderful and given the huge investment from our cast, director, writer and production team, we are delighted that the brilliant Con O'Neill is joining our company so that the show that we are so proud of can complete its West End run."

Joe Orton's plays include Entertaining Mr Sloane, What the Butler Saw and Loot.

Con O'Neill's London theatre credits include The Female Of The Species at the Vaudeville Theatre in 2008, Telstar at the Ambassadors Theatre in 2005, The Blues Brothers at the Whitehall Theatre in 1991 and Blood Brothers at the Albery Theatre (now Noel Coward Theatre) in 1988.

Chris New's London theatre credits include Daniel Kramer's production of Bent at the Trafalgar Studios.

Gwen Taylor is probably best known for her roles in various television series including Heartbeat, Barbara, A Bit of a Do and Duty Free. Her London theatre credits include playing 'Marlene' in Max Stafford-Clark's production of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls at the Royal Court Theatre in 1982 and 1983; and title role in Philip Dale's revival of Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart at the Old Vic Theatre in 1960.

Simon Bent's adaptations include Ingvar Ambjørnsen's Elling (from the original stage adaptation by Axel Hellstenius in collaboration with Petter Næss) which enjoyed a season at the Trafalgar Studios in 2007 and John Irving's novel A Prayer for Owen Meany which enjoyed a short sell-out run at the National Theatre's Lyttelton Theatre in 2002.

"The private life of 1960s gay aspiring playwright Joe Orton has been salaciously documented but Simon Bent's new play, taking its title from John Lahr's Orton biography attempts a different kind of personal encounter... Matt Lucas has the toughest challenge; he's clearly most at ease playing Halliwell as a kind of clownish forefather to Little Britain but he does bring desperate pathos to his depression. Peter McKintosh's set design is the most impressively expressive thing here, with its Battenberg ceiling and suffocating collages; even the acoustics increase disorientation. This is a blurry snapshot of internal hell, while outside. London swings." The London Metro

"The main reason for revisiting a familiar tragedy must be the quality of the principals: in Daniel Kramer's production, Matt Lucas as Ken, Chris New as Joe. Neither manages to match Alfred Molina and Gary Oldman, who took those roles on the screen. New can't wholly be blamed, because the main emphasis is Ken's escalating envy of the author of Loot. The leech is, so to speak, more important than the host... But the real problem is that Lucas overacts or at least tries too hard: pirouetting in narcissistic glee at first, flouncing in rage later, and, when he's distraught, crazed and shaking... Nothing wrong with Bent's script, which tells its story briskly and clearly and imports comic relief in the form of Gwen Taylor as a neighbour who spouts the sort of dim, goofy lines that Orton so relished. Nothing wrong with Peter McKintosh's recreation of the men's Islington flatlet, complete with walls plastered with Ken's collages of miniaturised Old Masters. They successfully reflect his ambition, hubris, overwrought imagination and mental confusion. If only the acting achieved as much." The Times

"Six months in jail in 1962 for hilariously defacing library books was the making of Joe Orton and the breaking of Kenneth Halliwell. For Orton, it was a room of his own, three meals a day and wall-to-wall men. He wrote Entertaining Mr Sloane, dedicating it to Ken, and got an agent who suggested John became Joe. While Joe thrived and flourished, Kenneth retreated and soured. As Halliwell says bitterly in Prick Up Your Ears: 'It's only by the success of others that we can truly be sure of our own failure.' The playwright Simon Bent borrows the title of John Lahr's biography of Orton for his play, to tell this sad, dark tale. As the story progresses, Halliwell's one-roomed flat becomes increasingly papered with paintings ripped from books. It begins rather well, with the pair inventing a wild and appropriately silly and suggestive Ortonesque parody of Mrs Dale's Diary about a missing tub of Vaseline. Mrs Corden, their upstairs neighbour, provides a steady stream of treasurable lines such as: 'Library books. I wouldn't have them in the house. You don't know where they've been.' But there are no surprises, no fresh insights into why Orton stayed with the increasingly toxic, depressed and volatile Halliwell... In the end, the play is disappointing: more of an eyeful than an earful." The Mail on Sunday

"Sometimes [Matt Lucas] seems to revert to the voices of characters he played in his comedy series. This is autopilot acting: it is about reciting lines rather than feeling them. Certainly he does not inhabit his character in the way that Gwen Taylor, the wily old stager who plays the couple's neighbour Mrs Corden, does... As for the great performance, it is Chris New as Orton. He invests the character with an appropriate mix of innocence and seediness. The actor has dangerous dark eyes, a fluid, natural way of moving about the stage and an ability to communicate a great deal with a look or a posture. He made me understand Orton. That's the thing about great acting - it requires you to understand a character. Bad acting requires you only to watch. It results in voyeurism rather than involvement." The Sunday Telegraph

Prick Up Your Ears in London at the Comedy Theatre previewed from 17 September 2009, opened on 30 September 2009 and closed on 15 November 2009.