‘Surreal and fantastic’ unperformed early play of Joe Orton to debut at Hope Theatre

Joe Orton

Joe Orton - Credit: Archant

Joe Orton’s outrageous farces energized the 60s theatre scene with their convention-busting themes of sex, death and madness. But before the likes of What The Butler Saw, Entertaining Mr Sloane, and Loot, the fledgling playwright flexed his wings with an early play that contains elements of the sardonic wit and sexual innuendo he would become famous for.

It was written in the bedsit at 25, Noel Road that he shared with lover Kenneth Halliwell, who bludgeoned him to death in 1967 before killing himself.

Now The Hope Theatre on Upper Street is staging the premiere of Fred and Madge a stone’s throw from where it was created.

The 1959 work features an unhappily married middle-aged bickering couple who discover they are actually inhabiting a play about themselves. It then spins off into surreal and fantastic sequences and outgoing Hope artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher says he is impressed by the young Orton’s ambition and maturity. “I read a lot of first plays and it’s difficult to accept it’s a first play. It’s not a masterpiece but it’s a very developed, refined play that is interesting in the way it experiments with form.

“It’s a play within a play, that shows influences of Ionesco, Pirandello and Beckett as well as a strong kitchen sink naturalism and experimentation with Greek tragedy.

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“Although he hadn’t yet gone to prison [for creatively defacing books from Essex Road Library and Islington Central Library] the anti-establishment and queer threads are still there and you get the sense of this working class boy from a dreary and depressed 1940s Leicester, who won a scholarship to RADA now living in this bedsit with Halliwell who is teaching him about history and literature.”

The Hope obtained special permission from the Orton estate – administered by his sister Leonie Orton-Barnett – to stage it for the first time.“Leonie is coming along to see it and says that in the exchanges between this couple Joe is quoting his parents. Everyone keeps asking why hasn’t it been done before and the answer is no-one’s been willing to take a risk on it. It’s a great example of what pub theatre is all about.”

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Fred and Madge runs until October 18.

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