QUENTIN CRISP became a household name back in the Seventies thanks to the brilliant portrayal of him by John Hurt in TV film The Naked Civil Servant. But a new one-man show about the legendary wit and raconteur — a flamboyant, openly gay man who defied the times — makes its debut at the Kenton Theatre next month, and promises to show a completely different side to the man.
Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope is written and performed by actor Mark Farrelly who has used Crisp’s own words to concoct an entirely new piece about his life. In his research, he travelled far and wide, making contact with relatives and friends of the dandy who died 15 years ago, aged 90.
He said: “Quentin Crisp has been reduced to a fedora and a few quips, a kind of Boy George figure, but there’s so much more to him than that.
“A lot of people see him as flamboyant or camp but I don’t see him that way. He was stoic in himself. The show is not really about being gay. It’s about being yourself no matter what — and a lot of us need a shove in that direction.”
Crisp was born into a conventional middle-class family as Denis Charles Pratt in 1908. As a young man he courted attention by walking the streets in make-up and painted nails, wearing sandals to show off his coloured toenails. He became a rent boy and was regularly beaten up on the street, but he refused to conform to society in terms of the way he dressed and acted.
In 1942, living in the tiny Chelsea flat that was to become his home for more than 30 years, he became a life model for various art classes. He wrote several books, his one-man show became a hit and his often controversial views on life — he openly criticised the gay movement and Princess Diana — became highly sought-after.
But it is the quiet, reflective side of Crisp that Mark Farrelly has found fascinating.
He said: “The last play about Quentin Crisp was Resident Alien by Tim Fountain, but my piece doesn’t use any of the same words — Quentin doesn’t seem to have said any dull words so there’s lots of amusing things he said.
“My piece is much more about his early life before he became famous. He was 66 when The Naked Civil Servant was broadcast. He had lived what he considered the vast majority of his life without fame. I laid my hands on everything I could. He wrote some fantastic books that are no longer in print, like How To Have a Lifestyle and How to Become a Virgin.
“I looked at all of that and got in touch with as many people as possible who knew him.
“I met his niece Frances, his publisher and everyone in New York who knew him in the Eighties and Nineties.
“A lot of people strangle their identity — they present a side of themselves they feel comfortable with. Crisp was stoically himself. I don’t know many people who are. I don’t think a lot of people have the courage to be absolutely open and be true to who they are. I don’t hear of many people who are like that, but that’s why people loved him.
“He was up in court for soliciting — or importuning as it was called then — in 1945 and he made a speech saying he insisted on being absolutely himself because if he wasn’t, ‘all the love and friendship given to me really is for someone else with the same name’. It’s a speech that got him off. That really touches a chord with people.
“He was being beaten up in the street in the Twenties and he went through that, and I think that’s incredibly courageous. When my mum read my play she said, ‘What a brave man’.”
Farrelly, who started acting while studying for a degree in English at Cambridge University, has played many interesting parts as a professional actor. He played Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf opposite Matthew Kelly at London’s Trafalgar Studios back in 2010, but decided to write his own material after becoming a little jaded with life on the boards. He wrote a play about Thirties playwright Patrick Hamilton, before discovering Crisp and his quiet, determined side.
He said: “He was not desperately trying to change the world, he wanted to be himself. He was extremely intelligent. He was self-taught but he was someone who wore his learning lightly, he didn’t try to impose it on you. His primary interest in life seemed to be to encourage people to be themselves and think for themselves, not to impress people.
“He spent most of his life living in a tiny rom in Chelsea, just thinking. He said: ‘I have entered the profession of being. You should give up doing and just be’.
“If I can inspire just one person in the audience to think along those lines then I will have done my job.”
• The 70-minute play Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope previews at the Kenton Theatre on Friday, July 11 before moving on to the Edinburgh Festival. Box office (01491) 575698 or visit www.kenton theatre.co.uk