Alan Bennett did indeed sneak in but no one in the box office recognized him, even though there was a six-foot photo of him hanging in the foyer. ‘We’re sold out, sir, I’m sorry. Alan Bennett’s very popular here you know.’ Being too shy to explain who he was he took the only seat, which happened to be at the back of gallery.
Except, once you’ve played this wonderful character it’s hard to release him. He’d become part of me, figuratively speaking, for over two sell-out seasons, so I decided to adapt the book into a one-man show for myself, something I have been performing around the UK for the past 16 years.
The television script of this play was the last thing Orton worked on before being battered to death by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell. He had trimmed it neatly down to 90 minutes, a precise and clever piece of adaptation. Various sections were rewritten and a number of very funny lines inserted (some have been included in the new production).
This powerful play exploded on the West End stage at a time when the Lord Chamberlain was still wielding a blue pencil against anything that might upset the morals of his sensitive flock. My first West End appearance, in There's a Girl in My Soup (1966), had come under attack. As I staggered on stage with an appalling hangover, I had to say, "my eyes feel like two piss-holes in the snow." This was changed, at the Chamberlain's insistence, to "rissoles". So it's hard to imagine how, two years earlier, Mr Sloane, the most shocking play of its day, ever made it to the West End.
None the less, his Lordship looked down his nose at certain references. For "arse", "harris" had to be substituted; "shit" had to be changed to "rubbish" and "vaginalatrous" cut completely. He insisted on replacing "tart" ("You're like an old tart grinding to her climax") with "actress". I'm not sure how he would have reacted to a certain performance in 1975, when Beryl Reid and Malcolm McDowell became aware that the audience, having lost interest in Kath's seduction of Sloane, was now transfixed by the other side of the auditorium, where a couple, half-naked, were having it off in one of the boxes. When the grunts of sexual frenzy became too much, the manager tapped at the door of the box and asked them to "desist". "It's all right," they said, "we've finished," and left.
Orton was bemused by the Lord Chamberlain's attitude to his play. "The funny thing about the Lord Chamberlain," he said, "was that he cut all the heterosexual bits and kept all the homosexual ones." (Although homosexuality was rife during the Sixties, it was still a criminal offence at the time.) For instance, Ed, when talking about the crudeness of women, assures Sloane that, "It's a thing you grow out of. With me behind you, boy, you'll grow out of it." But then Orton was the master of the innuendo, writing about sex obliquely rather than aiming it directly at you.
The story is based on fact. Orton's mother Elsie became obsessed by the arrival of a young lodger, a lorry driver, so much so that she was forever spring-cleaning the house and pandering to him. Eventually the family persuaded him to go, leaving behind the germ of a plot, which the young Orton seized upon.
The play opened at the New Arts Theatre on May 6, 1964, to mixed notices. "Not for a long time have I disliked a play so much," wrote The Daily Telegraph's critic, WA Darlington. "I feel as if snakes had been writhing around my feet." Not one to miss an opportunity, Orton began writing letters to the Telegraph under an assortment of pseudonyms, some expressing disgust (most famously Mrs Edna Welthorpe), others supporting the maligned playwright.
Playwright Sean O'Casey saw Entertaining Mr Sloane as a play "to make a man pull his trousers up", and Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson as "a vision of total evil". He went on to say that Orton reminded him a lot of Jane Austen! Terence Rattigan, then regarded as a rather dated figure, considered it to be the most exciting first play he had seen in 30 years. "I saw Wilde [in your play]," he wrote, ". . . in some ways better, because it had more bite. Sloane mustn't die at the Arts."
And thanks to Rattigan's campaigning, it didn't. Entertaining Mr Sloane transferred to Wyndham's Theatre on June 29, 1964, and Joe Orton's short reign as a West End playwright began. Towards the end of 1997 I managed to get hold of a copy of the television version which I had done 30 years earlier. Watching it again, I realised what an extraordinary piece it was. In many ways before its time, and not in the least dated, it seems as relevant now as it was when it first appeared.
The stage rights being available, my agent and I took out an option to see if we could re-launch the play, with me this time playing the slippery Ed. With Alison Steadman as Kath and Terry Johnson directing, we were able to bring Orton's magnificent comedy back to its birthplace, the Arts Theatre. It's still a disturbing and funny play, one that I'm proud to be part of.
The audience soon works out the probable solution to this almost Pinteresque tale of territorial invasion, but one is still gripped by the thrilling power of Bennett’s control of both scene and plot, as Francis generously cedes the play’s focus to his young co-actor.
John Thaxter, British Theatre Guide