Hope Theatre is a small, attractive theatre with a friendly atmosphere and an energy that reaches out from the moment of arrival to make one look forward to what will happen that evening. It was founded a year ago by a group from the Kings Head Theatre down the road, and is committed to new work.
Their latest play, Fred and Madge was a new play by Joe Orton – no, it was not sent from beyond the grave, although I think he might have enjoyed the idea. Fred And Madge was Orton’s first play, and for some reason this was its first professional production. The producers , Mary Franklin (director and Carin Nakanishi (designer) gave the play a lively, imaginative production, keeping the action moving across the tiny stage so that one was aware of the movement, not the size of the space, and even, a brilliant touch, lifting the floorboards to use the space beneath the acting area.
The play opens with a ‘normal’ couple, Fred and Madge, sitting in a glum, depressed silence. He has a job endlessly rolling rocks up hill, she spends her days emptying bathwater with a sieve. Their daughter is studying for her floor cleaning exam. (There are mythological and theatrical references throughout, going from prehistory to Noel Coward). Their lives are meaningless, colourless, with only the fear of death for excitement, even as life eats them away. They try to find ways to improve their lives, but they are only capable of the banal. Orton’s genius is already apparent in the way he mines the language of the ordinary, the banal and the meaningless for their inner insanity, which becomes hilarious.
But then the image begins to break open and fall apart, as another character, a director, enters with a member of the audience, and begins to rework the play and create another play within it. Fred and Madge are characters in this play, which may or may not be about them. The play and the play within it, get stranger and more surreal until the stage has turned from their sitting room into an England covered with plant life, and some insulters who tear down every shred of contemporary England . Madge is transformed. “Congratulate us!” she cries. “We’ve done such a lot of wanton destruction.” And they (and Orton) have done it with laughter – in a brilliant moment, the whole cast seem to be attacking all the structures of conventional life with wild, destructive , subversive laughter.
The play a very dark farce, is a rage against conventional attitudes which kill the soul and a rage against death which kills the body before it has fully experienced the joys of life.
“We are bound together in an experience called living” someone says and the word “called” is brilliantly placed to bring the listener up short with Orton’s vision of the strangeness of life itself.
“The sun has traveled 93 million miles to shine on our kitchen and its unwashed dishes” is another wonderful juxtaposition of the awesome and the idiotic, which somehow makes sense when one considers it for a minute.
The acting was excellent throughout; everyone played the whole thing with a straight face which gave the action a heightened sense of the absurd; the stranger and more absurd the play became,the straighter the faces of the players and the louder the laughter of the audience.
The ending is happy, of course, as endings should be; the cast depart for India, where they eagerly imagine a new and better life, armed with guide books and publicity brochures. As a fantastic, fictitious and surely unlikely future is predicted for them, a character sums up their entry into their new life: “It is because we regard the improbable, the incredible and the contrary-to-reason as being of importance that we have made these remarks here , at the commencement of our journey.” The words could have been spoken by Orton himself.
I’m not actually sure if Orton would have been pleased to have his very early work performed, but it is fortunate for us to see it, because it shows a major writer at the beginning of his career, with the themes of his great work not yet fully developed but still already in place, ready to burst forth in the work of his maturity.
Review by Kate Beswick
☆ ☆ ☆
FRED and MADGE By Joe Orton
The Hope Theatre
207 Upper Street
London N1 1RL
Press night: Friday 19th September at 7.30pm
15th September to 18th October
Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinee 18th October 2.30
Previews: 15, 16, 17 September all seats £10
Tickets £13 – £16
Box Office | 020 7226 4443
Sunday 21st September 2014