Thursday 29 June 2017
Stephen Frears | UK, 1987 | 110 mins | Rated 15
Leicester-born playwright Joe Orton was the toast of the London stage in the mid-1960s. Defiantly working class, and gay at a time when homosexual acts were still illegal, his gleefully subversive satires such as Loot and Entertaining Mr. Sloan delighted and outraged audiences in equal measure.
Adapted from John Lahr’s biography that is itself based on Orton’s scurrilously candid diaries, Prick Up Your Ears focuses on Orton’s relationship with his mentor, lover and one-time collaborator, Kenneth Halliwell. After meeting at RADA in 1951 they’re soon living a claustrophobic existence as failed writers in a cramped Islington bedsit, where, despite Orton’s eventual success, they would never leave. As Orton eclipses his former teacher in every aspect, Halliwell’s always fragile mental health deteriorates. In early August 1967 he takes both their lives.
Screening to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised homosexual acts in England and Wales, Prick Up Your Ears offers a refreshingly nostalgia-free take on Britain of 50s and 60s, and a glimpse into the lives of gay men at that time. For the flagrantly promiscuous Orton, who thrives on the danger of his many illicit encounters, sex is never hard to find, whereas Halliwell is virtually crippled by repression and anxiety.
With a typically sharp and wryly humorous script from Alan Bennett and a brilliant performance from a youthful Gary Oldman as the cocksure and mischievous Orton, director Frears ensures that this potentially grim story is never less winningly witty, charming – and rude and lewd – than its main subject and source material.