Out of the Wings

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Noel Road 25: a genius like us (2001), Carlos Be

English title: 25 Noel Road: A Genius Like Us
Date written: 2001
First publication date: 2002
First production date: 2005
Keywords: art > theatre, identity > sexuality, identity > celebrity, identity > gender cross dressing, love, love > relationships, love > lust, power > inter-personal/game play, violence, violence > murder, violence > suicide
Genre and type: tragedy, magic realism

Ken and Joe are lovers. But this is not the love of fairytales. It is the stuff of dark, erotic nightmares, leading to destruction.


In his apartment at 25 Noel Road, Ken has violently murdered his lover Joe. He has then killed himself. Spectre-like, Ken stands over Joe’s inert body, recalling their funerals. Scores attended Joe’s burial, while only a handful of people came to pay their respects to Ken. In death just as in life, then, Joe – a famous playwright – got all the attention while Ken could only remain in the shadows.

On stage, Joe gets up from the floor and the action moves back in time. Ken and Joe are in the middle of an argument. Ken loves Joe. Joe, however, freely admits to being promiscuous and says that he does not love Ken. Throughout the play, Ken’s perceived sense of victimhood will conflict with Joe’s exasperation. Their relationship is a complex mix of lust, indifference, bitterness and anger. Yet there is also an intangible bond that keeps them together.

In the course of their initial argument in the play, Ken threatens to kill Joe with a hammer. Joe laughs off the threat and lightens the mood by engaging Ken in a flight of fancy about how they would be the most sexually-depraved couple in Hell. Their joint reverie is soon shattered, however, by a telephone call. Joe leaves, presumably to meet the young man on the other end of the phone. Ken is left alone, seemingly abandoned by his selfish lover.

Later, Joe discovers that the hammer is missing. He remembers Ken’s threats to kill him and confronts his lover, who denies having the hammer in his possession. Joe has become very successful as a playwright and is getting increasingly tired of Ken’s neediness. For his part, Ken is bitter at his lover’s success and is angry that Joe refuses to publicly acknowledge the contribution he made to it. In fact, Ken claims to be responsible for all of Joe’s success. Joe refutes this constantly, and is angered when he learns that Ken arranged the previous night’s meeting with the handsome young man on the phone. This potential sexual partner never turned up – on Ken’s orders. When Joe finds out that the entire situation was manipulated by Ken, he angrily arouses his lover sexually in an act of dominance and lust.

Ken remembers when he and Joe first met. Joe was 18 and he was 25. They spent days in bed, and both remember the particular occasion in 1953 when they watched the coronation of Queen Elizabeth together. On stage now, Ken and Joe pretend to be the Queen speaking her solemn vows. Their performance turns into another sex act between them, a brief moment of harmony in their frequently turbulent relationship.

As a well-known playwright, Joe has given many interviews. He listens to one in which he describes his failed marriage. Joe was never married, and is angry at feeling obliged to lie about such things. Indeed, Ken often accuses Joe of making up lies to suit the occasion. Joe is writing a diary about their time in Tangiers. Most of it is made up purely to shock audiences. When Joe was briefly sent to prison for defacing library books, he pretended to the other inmates that he was heterosexual. Ken accuses Joe of being a fake and of even stealing stories from Ken’s family background. Because of this, Ken insists he has a claim to Joe’s own life – that the two of them are bonded together. Accordingly, Ken puts a chain around Joe’s neck and makes him kneel on all fours at his feet. Much to Ken’s annoyance, however, Joe derives sexual pleasure from the bondage. When Ken repeats his threats to kill him and then commit suicide, Joe is undaunted. He simply engages his aggrieved lover in another flight of fancy, imagining the police finding their naked dead bodies.

After this, it is Ken’s turn to be tied up by Joe. Ken remembers his painful childhood. He watched his mother choke on a wasp and die in front of him when he was only 11. His father retreated into himself in grief and eventually took his own life. Ken is fond of the song Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child. It appears to be a suitable soundtrack to his own life.

Joe leaves the apartment and comes back smelling strongly of sex. He tells Ken about his encounter with a man and a young boy in a public toilet. Slowly but surely, Ken gets involved in the experience, going along with Joe’s description of every little detail. Ken imagines what might happen if he were to have such an encounter himself. He adds a hint of romance to his fantasy, which Joe makes fun of. Joe accuses Ken of never being able to separate sex from love, of not understanding his need for fleeting sexual encounters. Once again, he and Ken start to argue. This time, however, things get violent. Joe beats Ken, who can only cower as the blows rain down on him.

Things have calmed down when we next see Ken and Joe at home. Ken has just been to the doctor who has given him antidepressants. Ken claims that the doctor sympathises with his situation, mistreated at the hands of Joe who does not love him. Joe only laughs at this, insisting that his penchant to be promiscuous is incurable. Joe notices that Ken is looking for something. He remembers the missing hammer, but is relieved when all Ken is looking for is a bottle of pills. Joe does not realise that the danger has not passed. As he relaxes, Ken surprises him from behind with the hammer. He smashes it down on Joe’s head, killing him.

The final scene takes us back to the beginning of the play. Agitated, Ken paces the room. He talks to Joe’s dead body, claiming that he did not mean to do what he did. Their tortured relationship on earth is over. Now, as Ken prepares to follow Joe into the afterlife, he expresses the hope that Joe will make him happy.


Joe Orton (1933-67) and Kenneth Halliwell (1926-67)

The play is based on the life and murder of the playwright Joe Orton at the hands of his lover Kenneth Halliwell. On the night of 9 August 1967 Orton was brutally murdered by Halliwell, who then took a fatal overdose. Their bodies were found together. Prior to this, the couple had lived in a small flat at 25 Noel Road, Islington, London. Their relationship had become extremely strained as a result of Orton’s public success and his sexual promiscuity. Orton wrote about sexual encounters with other men in his diaries which have been subsequently published. Halliwell’s suicide note referred to these diaries as the reason for his actions.

A number of other incidents mentioned in the play have their roots in reality. For example, Kenneth Halliwell actually did witness his mother’s death at the age of 11. In the play, Joe recalls his time in prison. Both Orton and Halliwell were sentenced to six months for stealing and defacing library books. A number of these vandalised book covers can be found on the Joe Orton Online website at http://www.joeorton.org/Pages/Joe_Orton_Gallery13.html [accessed November 2011]. Joe Orton was indeed cremated at Golders Green to the Beatles’ song A Day in the Life.

Scenes 3 and 9 are entitled ‘La Mamma Morta’. This is the title of an aria from the opera Andrea Chénier by Umberto Giordiano. The aria featured notably in the 1993 film Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks as a gay man dying of AIDS.

Critical response

The play won the Caja España Prize in 2001.

Further information

A number of videos and pictures from various productions of the plays are available on Carlos Be’s website, at http://carlosbe.blogspot.com/search/label/Noel%20Road%2025... [accessed November 2011].

Useful readings and websites

Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 30 November 2011.

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