One day in 1966 a script came through the post from my agent…its title Loot, author Joe Orton, with it a note designating a date, a place and a time for an audition reading the part of Mr McLeavy.
I was mightily impressed by the play, but it was my wife Helen who set me on fire when she had read it twice, ‘This part’ she said, ‘was written for you, and if they can get it past the Lord Chamberlain it will be a hit’. She pointed out that the play was loaded with non sequiturs, that is to say most of the dialogue did not come to any logical conclusion. She also told me what kind of questions might be asked and she was mostly right, in particular the key question of the second audition and that was from Marowitz, who asked me in what style did I think this play should be done and he went back to all the romance plays and all the rest of it, light comedy or farce or what. What did I think? My wife Helen had done my thinking for me, the answer was, this was to be played dead straight, very seriously, anyone playing on that stage that wanted to be funny, had better not take the part. Well it’s been said before, comedy is a very serious business.
At the first reading in the hall at St John’s Wood, I met the rest of the cast, Michael Bates, Ken Cranham, Simon Ward, and Ann Lynn. Ann Lynn was a very well known actress, but after reading it through thoroughly, she decided that it was not a nice play and asked to be relieved. Which was a lucky thing for us, she was replaced by a very fine Shakespearian actress, Sheila Ballantine, who played her to utter and complete perfection. She played the part of Fay, a nurse, who had been looking after Mrs McLeavy and through the play you get the impression that maybe she did help Mrs McLeavy on her way to heaven. She also had her eyes on McLeavy, that’s for certain, that is shown up in the dialogue and the way she reacted. Me, I played the part of a middle-aged Catholic, whose wife had recently died. I have a son, and the son has a friend who is part of a funeral establishment that is arranging Mrs McLeavy’s funeral.
The rehearsals were very mundane actually, the usual four weeks, there were some alterations on the way. Joe Orton appeared three or four times, and came in again when Marowitz the director wanted some changes in the script. Otherwise we didn’t see Joe until it got to the Jeanetta Cochrane (Theatre). Charles Marowitz in rehearsal was very gentle with everybody and allowed the characters to develop. My part of McLeavy was that of a very simple married man, a Catholic, and the part as I understood it had to be played very very seriously indeed. He never could give away by a single glance or inflection that he wasn’t exactly as he was supposed to be – a man who had just lost his wife and felt it very keenly – despite the fact that all around him mischief was brewing in the shape of a fake Water Board Inspector, his son and his son’s friend and a nurse.
There were two opening nights actually at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre, the first was an invited audience, who reacted somewhat slowly to what was happening on the stage, but which finally gave way to incessant laughing, giggling and it was so obvious that we on stage could see that they were enjoying it. In fact later on, this thing happened quite a few times, people kept coming back to catch up on the jokes they had missed out on. The reason for this was that it was the kind of play that did not allow the actors to hold any laugh for any length of time, otherwise it would have blown the continuity. So the holding of any particular laugh was very brief indeed and when we finally got to the Criterion (Theatre) we had the greats of stage and screen and television and films coming to see the play and listen two or three times.
The reaction to this play among the critics was, to say the least, uproar. The vast majority found it delightful, there were a few that just dismissed it out of hand, and the one that really did not like me was the critic for the magazine Punch. It must be noted too, that as time went on, we on stage began to notice that three, four or even six people would leave their seats before intermission and would not return. Somebody didn’t like it. But that did not stop the progress of the play…..people came back three or four times to see it.
During rehearsal at St John’s Wood, and even when we did the five weeks at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre, Charles Marowitz was kindness and gentleness itself. However when we got to the Criterion it was a different Charles Marowitz that confronted us three or four times a week. Backstage after the show he would proceed to take strips off everybody. We discovered that his real aim to stop Michael Bates from trying to do funny motions, because we had all agreed at the start of this thing that it had to be played dead straight, that there was to be nothing funny from any of the characters on stage, and Michael, who was a born comedian, came in to try and be funny.
I remember that during the run, Bob Finlay who was stage manager for the Royal Shakespeare Company, was stage managing the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. We were invited to the dress rehearsal and it was a magnificent performance….while we were there we were spotted by Joe Orton and his friend (Kenneth Halliwell) who immediately came down and joined us in the stalls and my wife Helen and Joe got on marvelously well. Immediately Helen and Joe went off on those marvellous flights of fancy that two highly articulate people in the theatre are capable of.
I’m often asked what do I think of Joe Orton. Well, let me put it this way, I liked him, everybody liked him. He was keen witted, full of jokes and had a very warm personality.
He very often came backstage with small suggestions of movements or about the script which we followed faithfully, I don’t know if it improved our performances or not, but he was always quite nice about it. Sometime after the play was well underway, Joe and Ken Halliwell went to Morocco and I have in my possession today a postcard from Ken to the effect that they were having a wonderful time and up to the present moment had not been publicly assaulted but were living in hopes. (See the postcard here)
When we got back (to Australia) we got cuttings from England, to tell us that Joe Orton had died, he had in fact been killed by his friend Ken Halliwell. The reason for this my wife knew, and she told me that Joe had formed a liaison with a prominent manager of a well known music team at that time and it would have been a wonderful combination. Apparently Halliwell had found out about it and beat Joe to death with a hammer…two weeks later, sad to relate, the new found friend of Joe Orton committed suicide.