Review: Fred & Madge (Hope Theatre, London)

Fred & Madge.

Fred & Madge. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A pristine production of Joe Orton’s absurdist misanthropy.

Overview

Fred & Madge are in an unhappy marriage: both yearning for a change of pace from their jobs pushing boulders up hills and sieving bath water respectively. At times it almost seems like their life is preordained. But how can they break this monotony and break free the shackles of their lot?

Writing

This is an incredibly interesting play as it’s regarded as the very first piece Joe Orton ever wrote. It was, however, not found until well after his death among some of his papers, and not published until 2001. 13 years after the publication, his estate have only now granted permission for it to be professionally performed, giving the esteemed pleasure to wave-making fringe company, Rough Haired Pointer.

Orton has a very special place in many people’s heart because of his sexuality, his lifestyle, and his then scandalous and shocking farces; particularly What the Butler Saw, and Entertaining Mr. Sloane. However, don’t expect to find here the salacious wit that made him the legend he became. Very much a juvenile piece, it’s actually an absurdist comedy: a genre that you would not at all associate Orton with. The result is something that is only really Orton in name, although you can certainly see the basis of what his writing was later to become. As Director Mary Franklin described Fred & Madge when I interviewed her, it’s Orton, “sharpening his teeth,” and “a patchwork of [his] research”.

The writing itself is a scattershot satire. You get the sense of an angry young man sounding off in all directions, sending up everything from the proletariat lot, to the mediocrity of the BBC. But Orton’s toying of the nonsensical and outlandish, despite being all over the place, is still somehow satisfying and entertaining despite it being untidy and unfocused. Furthermore, the fantastic situations our characters are placed in, never cloud the myriad grumbles that Orton is trying to get across, and in more than several occasions provide some rather barmy and rib-tickling moments, with the odd terrible pun thrown in for good measure.

The only real criticism of the writing really is just this fact that it’s neurotic about what it’s trying to say, contributing to the fact that overall it’s a very adolescent play of Orton’s. It’s an enlightening exercise examining the incubation of Orton’s style, but a noticeably unpolished one and far from a perfect piece of absurdism.

Direction & Production

It’s Rough Haired Pointer’s production that exquisitely lifts this prelude to Orton’s later fame. This is a company with an imagination and energy that results in incredibly slick and daring theatre.

They achieve this through nuance and small experimentations. For example, Jordan Mallory-Skinner’s sound design, playing an integral part of the show, isn’t just about finding the right shade of chirpy 1950s music to accompany the production. He’s also brought a lot of original music and live sound design as well. Whilst it’s all unnecessary in the sense that it isn’t required by the text, it really augments the action on the stage by adding that aural layer of intrigue and colour. Likewise, the set is wonderfully ramshackle and DIY-feeling, really evoking the sense of bedraggled but bombastic street theatre. It visually adds to the anarchy of the piece perfectly, as well as hiding some little surprises. Even the lighting design plays along, not only merely setting scene and atmosphere, but doing things like purposefully flickering the footlights to really give a sense that there is little order to Fred & Madge’s world.

Mary Franklin’s direction is expertly executed, marking her out as a real up-and-coming fringe force. Tackling this odd and unwieldy piece, she does everything she does she can to capture the essence of the play and heighten pace. Again, the success is in the detail. Franklin manages to throw the audience off many times with awkward and baffling pauses where fourth wall is broken, but ensures there’s plenty of things going on elsewhere to make sure the pace and audience attention never drops. They’re kept enrapt there out of both curiosity and enjoyment. Little thing like the constant and inexplicable repositioning of a set of French windows in the Second Act is a prime example of this. It’s a direction of meticulous understanding and creativity that upstages the text.

The cast of 'Fred & Madge'. Photograpgh: Courtesy of the production.

The cast of ‘Fred & Madge’. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Cast

The cast here are as tight knit an ensemble as they come. Rather than just merely bouncing energy of each other, you feel a real sense of fraternity where each performer supports and emboldens their colleagues. Because of this, it’s almost impossible to pick out superlative performances as the company more of an extraordinary organic entity rather than a mere collection of actors. What this achieves is that there’s no slack on stage at any given moment. No-one distracts and imposes upon what’s happening, and you’re wholly invested in every character they play, because the performer’s character they’re interacting with is, and vice versa.

They do all of this with a brilliant enthusiasm and joie de vivre for the piece, throwing themselves head-on into Orton’s madding crowd without a moment’s falter, as well as the exalting the wonderful idiosyncrasies and details of the production.

Verdict

Fred & Madge is a complete different kettle of fish (which includes an actual kettle of fish) to anything else Orton has done. If you’re expecting “Orton”, you’re going to be a little baffled to say the least. But if you go expecting something different and crazy, you’re in for an absolute treat as Rough Haired Pointer show the rest of the fringe how production is done.

[youtube http://youtu.be/Zs6SaSFiQU4]

Fred & Madge plays at The Hope Theatre, London, N1 1RL, until 18 October. Tickets are £16 (concessions available). To book, visit www.kingsheadtheatre.com.

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