Fred and Madge (A play by Joe Orton)
19th Sept 2014
Written in 1959 and until now never professionally produced, Fred & Madge had its World Premiere at the 50 seat theatre above the Hope and Anchor, minutes away from the flat where its author lived, wrote and in 1967 was murdered. Ged Babey was there for Louder Than War … at the premiere, not the murder.
This was pretty-much the absolute best thing I’ve ever seen in the theatre.
It was amazing. Funny, bizarre, clever… and like a genie coming out of a bottle having been stuck in there since before the dawn of the Swinging Sixties and predicting a hallucinatory future that had already happened in our past. A surreal state of the nation address about the state this nation is still in. Kinda. A play about the banal, the indignity of labour, repressed desire and suppressed emotions, the BBC, the Church and the establishment and their axis of evil … with double entendres and cross-dressers. And a Roy Orbison song.
I’m not a regular theatre goer, so maybe it’s just me. .A complacent chump from the Guardian just didn’t feel the anarchic joy that spilled from the stage and enraptured me (and the wife). But this really was the most unexpectedly fantastic (in the true sense of the word) thing I’ve ever seen on stage. Previous contenders were a production of The Elephant Man in 1981 and Zoe Wannamaker as Stevie Smith earlier this year.
The premiere of a new-before-seen Orton play was always going to be interesting…. but I had reservations beforehand; why did he never want it published or performed? Did he think it was that bad? Would it be horribly dated?
Maybe it would be like the theatrical equivalent to a bands early work, rough demo tapes with the spark of genius but not quite fully realised? Like the Sex Pistol‘s Spunk was to Never Mind the Bollocks? Would Fred and Madge be Orton’s Spunk?
Joe Orton’s connection to punk rock is perhaps tenuous. His name appears on McClaren and Westwood’s infamous WHICH SIDE OF THE BED t-shirt on the side of the heroes. His work was one of many influences on a young Adam Ant in his fetish Ants era and of course Gary Oldman’s first two major film roles were firstly as Sid Vicious (Sid and Nancy) and then Joe Orton himself in the biopic Prick Up Your Ears.
Personally, as a fan of his TV series Shelley it was Hywell Bennett’s role in the film version of Orton’s play Loot which drew me initially to him. It was surreal, anti-establishment, black comedy which has an edge and therefore enough of a punk vibe about it to make me curious.
Of course Orton wrote Up Against It for the Beatles, and much later people like Brett Anderson, Richie Manic and Jarvis Cocker were always compared to or talked of in terms of their Orton-esque outlook or work. He will always be cool because there was so much intelligence and insight amongst the cruelty and pervyness in his plays. He was a one-off.
Joe Orton is still a ‘cult hero’. He’s not a universally loved Great British Institution. He didn’t live long enough to become a luvvie and a National treasure, forever on chat-shows and award ceremonies. He will always remain anti-establishment … which is partly why this production is so fascinating, and so brilliant.
The cast, without exception were exceptional. Deadpan, expressive and comic when necessary and the vital timing was spot-on. The Hope is a very small space to perform in but the inventive set design meant not an inch was wasted.
Apart from the Fred and Madge of the title, there are eight characters who the four other actors play with the help of wigs hats and glasses. Female roles are played by men with ill-fitting wigs and a real beard in one case with a Monty Python-type exaggeratedly crone-ish voice.
Although this seems absurd at first, it all fits as the play progresses. Small Part Player and Old Man are played with great comic timing because as well as acting they shift scenery and provide music and sound effects from a deliberately visible side-stage (no bigger than a broom cupboard).
Fred & Madge is a play within a play, the director not appearing onstage until after a fifteen-minute dialogue between Fred and Madge, which set the gloomy scene of their humdrum lives.
“Oh, the boredom! the fatigue of living! no merriment, no whoopee, no frolics….”
The characters based on Ortons parents perhaps turn banality into an art form. But gradually they seem to expand their horizons as the play becomes more absurdist.
” It’s an experience, seeing our hall in the dawn, as the sun rises. All that light coming ninety-three million miles through space to shine on our Welcome mat.”
By Act Two they have separated and Madge invites a professional insulter and insultrix to her impending second marriage. There is a stupendous rant about the BBC which the Insulter delivers;
“Infantile, nepotic liars, time-serving good taste… They are a tumour on the life of the nation, with their intolerable middleness…”
The Church also come in for some stick (“That book of theirs is a best-seller”) and in what amounts to an almost JG Ballardian prediction of the future there is a section on various “moods that they are advertising”
Zeal, Optimism and Despair didn’t come highly recommended but ” a mixture of Verve, Gusto and Fanaticism” sounded a tonic. And Fred actually says ” Ecstasy is good”.
The pace picks up by Act Three and there are numerous quotable barbs aimed at all and sundry, the insulters attempt to purge society with laughter, England becomes overgrown with marigolds and elephants roam free.
Maybe it does sound a bit strange on paper or rather screen, but it is captivating to see performed. And afterwards a joy to read to remind yourself of all the lines you missed.
The line that will resonate with the generations of former Angry Young Men and Lovers of Outrage who should make a point of seeing this play is this one;
“Is rage the prerogative of youth? Must we cool with the years and die when our blood has chilled to the temperature of the society around us? …No! We must hurt the feelings of our enemies, infuriate those we dislike and never cease to bring the hornets nest about our ears!”
I’ve never seen a play that buzzed with so much insanity and as many ideas brought to life by a gifted and enthusiastic cast and crew.
And all at a venue, above a pub full of rock’n’roll history. A stupendous night. Tickets still available.
Produced by Rough Haired Pointer & Adam Spreadbury-Maher
Director Mary Franklin
Cast: Andrew Brock, Jake Curran, Loz Keystone, Jordan Mallory-Skinner, Jodyanne Richardson, Geordie Wright.
The play runs until October 18th 2014 with tickets being £13 and £16.
Photo from www.joeorton.org .
All words Ged Babey. More from Ged can be found at his Louder Than War Author’s Archive.