A conversation about the hilliness of Norfolk in Joe Orton’s early play Fred and Madge would appear to be a deliberate subversion of Noel Coward’s famous lines from Private Lives. And subversion, of theatrical convention and social philosophy, was to lie at the heart of all the plays Orton wrote in his short life, although nowhere else as overtly or obviously as here.
A small rash of revivals of Orton’s main works in London a few years ago virtually amounted to a renaissance but, with so few of them written before his premature death, admirers of his unique style were left wanting more. Unearthing this earliest attempt at playwriting, then, would seem a good idea and in Mary Franklin’s sparky production, with a hard-working and talented cast, it is.
They seem to have the measure of the piece, tackling the highly idiosyncratic mixture of styles with flair and enthusiasm. It’s pretty unwieldy; an explosion of anarchic humour and, often less than subtle, satire. Orton begins with what feels a familiar onslaught against the mundanity of everyday life and the debilitating effects of work. An overt image is of Fred’s daily task manhandling a boulder, Sisyphus-like, up a slope only to let it repeatedly roll back again; a nod towards Camus while taking an up-to-then domestic setting in a whole new direction.
The play then swings into all sorts of different territories, as the madness intensifies: London overtaken by a tropical forest, buildings laughed to the ground and ever wilder situations abound. Orton even seems to be sending up the absurdists (Ionesco, Simpson et al) by breaking every boundary that they contained themselves within.
The fourth wall is constantly broken with Pirandellian dabbling, as actors play actors playing characters and the head spins trying to keep up with the logic of it all. The unrelenting craziness does get wearing at times but the cast keep on top of it with unflagging commitment. It’s not clear whether Franklin has added some flourishes of her own or if it’s all as Orton intended but they keep us entertained with musical interludes and excellent characterisations.
A programme note suggests that Orton’s intention was to return to similar ground, following the relatively conventional forms of What The Butler Saw, but frustratingly we’ll never know what that mature exploration of theatrical possibilities would have looked like. Fred and Madge can give us a few hints, if we use some imagination of our own.
It would be interesting to see what a shedload of money and effects thrown at the play would do to make the imagery more vivid but somehow the village hall simplicity of a theatre above a pub has a roughness and vitality that is good enough for so primordial a work.