Fred and Madge
Rough Haired Pointer
This was Joe Orton’s first play, the first written just by him, but in 1959 no one would put on. It was discovered among his papers long after his death and published in 2001. It has had amateur stagings (by the OUDS in 2000 and Tower Theatre in 2001) but now gets its first professional outing in this production at the Hope, just a long stone’s throw from where he lived in Noel Road.
Orton’s sister told the Observer that some things about it reminded her of their own lives with their parents on a Leicester housing estate, but this is not an ordinary picture of humdrum domesticity.
Fred and Madge is an intriguing theatrical concoction that reflects the Theatre of the Absurd approach of Ionesco, N F Simpson and other contemporary dramatists, but it starts with what could be any working class couple, the titular Fred and Madge. Straight, married, and fed up with their lives, their conversation about what they could do to liven it up and looking back on better times is banally ordinary but in a heightened way.
When this production introduces their neighbour Queenie as a bearded, curly-wigged chap in pearls and a frock, it pushes the absurdism up a notch—and escalates it further when demonstrating the couple’s jobs. Fred spends his days, Sisyphus-like, pushing a boulder up a slope, only to have it roll down again, while Madge is one of a team that sieves through bath water.
Soon there is a pinch of Pirandello; it's a play within a play, with a guy who could be the director. There were times prior to the interval when I got lost in its confusions. The second half has a slightly more logical storyline with professional insulters at a wedding and concentrated ridicule used to bring down institutions in an attack upon modernity before the coming of the elephants and emigration.
There is a lovely regression to “the old days” and a picnic by the river and a host of great one-liners. “We forgot the cost of living,” declares one character to get the answer, “growing old is the cost of living”; a reference to the Church prompts the comment, “after 2000 years you’d think they’d have covered their production costs”—and there are plenty more like that.
I think director Mary Franklin gets it wrong in camping up some of the characters. Geordie Wright’s androgynous Queenie is encouraged to overdo it and even Jodyanne Richardson’s Madge has the exaggerations of a female impersonator. Jake Curran plays Fred absolutely straight and without exaggeration and Jordan Mallory-Skinner’s Webber does so too (as well as popping up in other guises).
Andy Brock makes a suitably heavyweight insultor and, as his companion posh Miss Oldbourne, Loz Keystone’s cross-dressed touch of caricature gets the balance just right. Nevertheless it might have been much funnier if the director had not laid an extra camp layer on the campness already in the text.
Franklin, perhaps wisely, has pruned the script of numerous topical late 1950s references, which a twenty-first century audience might not understand, and has added musical touches (including a very ‘50s washboard) that work well.
I can’t see this play getting many future revivals, but it shows a very caustic side of Orton and gives a taste of the cleverness that flowered more fully in the more structured work that was then still to come.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton