New play sheds 'Light' on London pop icons

PHOTO: KYLE CASSIDY Doug Greene (left) stars as Joe Orton, a playwright who gets mixed up in the work of Brian Epstein (played by Bob Stineman), the music-store owner who helped mold the Beatles, in "Traveling Light."
PHOTO: KYLE CASSIDY Doug Greene (left) stars as Joe Orton, a playwright who gets mixed up in the work of Brian Epstein (played by Bob Stineman), the music-store owner who helped mold the Beatles, in "Traveling Light."
Posted: August 30, 2013

LONDON IN the 1960s was the epicenter of a pop-culture revolution whose effects still reverberate a half-century later.

The pop-music agenda was being set by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and countless other bands. Fashion was dictated by Carnaby Street couturiers and presented to the world by the first "supermodel," Twiggy. Even the future of American television was being forged by such Brit shows as "Till Death Do Us Part" and "Steptoe and Son," which, respectively, were the basis of "All In the Family" and "Sanford and Son." And right in the middle of the action were two men who may not have been as famous as those listed above, but who, nonetheless, helped "Swinging London" swing.

The more well-known (at least in the U.S.) of the two was Brian Epstein, the one-time Liverpool record store owner who molded four scruffy kids from that gritty seaport into the most famous and influential pop band of all time. The other was Joe Orton, a rising screenwriter whose dark comedies helped set an appropriately cynical tone for the British hipsteratti of the day. The two men are the key characters in "Traveling Light," by Philadelphian Lindsay Harris Friel. The play, which runs Sept. 6 through 14 at Skybox at the Adrienne, is having its local debut as part of the 2013 Fringe Festival.

"They are as different as chalk and cheese on the outside, but on the inside they were very much kindred spirits," Northeast resident Friel said during a recent interview. "And that's what's getting dealt with in the course of the play."

The key similarity between the two were that they were both gay during a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Great Britain. That Orton - who was murdered by his lover, artist Kenneth Halliwell (he was reportedly jealous of Orton's professional ascendancy while his own career was floundering) - and Epstein (drug overdose) died less than a month apart in August 1967 only adds to the still-unsolved mystery: Were Brian and Joe physically or romantically involved?

Ostensibly, according to Friel, the two had very few dealings. Paul McCartney, a big Orton fan (he even invested in one of the author's films), suggested Orton be hired should a third Beatles movie be produced. Orton met with Epstein in his London office and Epstein subsequently invited him to dinner the same night (McCartney was also present).

The dinner led to an Orton script called "Up Against It" in which a group of young men - all of them troublemakers and hell-raisers - from a small British town are exiled for their bad behavior. They wind up becoming radical revolutionaries.

"They have to dress in drag, and assassinate someone and blow up a statue," explained Friel, who is currently studying for a fine-arts master's degree at Temple University. "[The script] ended with all four Beatles in bed with one woman. It was really not the squeaky-clean, cuddly 'Mop Top' image that you get in 'A Hard Day's Night' and 'Help.' "

As the Beatles' manager, it was Epstein who was required to inform Orton the screenplay was inappropriate - a situation that is at the heart of "Traveling Light."

"Joe wants to find out from Brian why Brian, who in Joe's mind is obviously gay, why he would reject his script. Brian set Joe's gaydar off right away," said Friel. "It was a sore point: 'How dare you reject my script when you're just like me?' "

As to the actual nature of the relationship between the two men, Friel's research suggests they were intimate.

"If you look at Orton's diary, it does not say he ever saw Epstein again," she said. "But there are a lot of pages missing from Orton's diary because when Orton was killed, there was a note left by [Halliwell] that said, 'If you read the diaries, all will be explained.' The diaries were picked up by Orton's manager, who held on to them for many years.

"She gave [a publisher] the diaries, but they were not necessarily complete. It's believed there were pages she kept; the diaries are very explicit. They talk about everything he ate and who he went to parties with and who he had sex with. And he doesn't spare any details."

Bolstering Friel's theory are papers left by an Australian actor who was close to Orton.

"There was an actor named Gerry Duggan [who died in 1992]," noted Friel. When Duggan learned of Orton's death, she said, "He said to his wife, 'Oh isn't that terrible? That nice boy Joe died. He was killed by his boyfriend.' And she said, 'Didn't you know the rumor was Joe was having an affair with the manager of a very popular pop band?'

"There were other gay music managers in the scene in London in the '60s, but Brian Epstein is the most likely candidate."


Skybox at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., show times vary, $20 and $10 ($15 students and people younger than 25), 215-413-1318, livearts-fringe.org.

Walnut hits 'Heights'


While experimental and avantgarde theater is being celebrated by the Fringe Festival, the 2013-14 Broadway musical season kicks off Tuesday at the Walnut Street Theatre as the 204-year-old venue introduces its version of "In The Heights," a slice-of-lifer centered on a New York neighborhood primarily populated by Dominican immigrants. It runs through Oct. 20.

Despite the setting, the story was inspired by author Quiara Alegria Hudes' West Philly upbringing.


Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., show times vary, $92.25, $81.75 and $71.75, 800-736-1420, ticketmaster.com.

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