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The Review - FEATURE

Vicki Carpenter and Tom Symonds are hoping for a revival in his father’s work

John Symonds

Playwright emerges from obscurity with a tale of incest

John Symonds is 91 and knew George Orwell and Aleister Crowley. His incestuous play, The Poison Maker, is about to get a rare airing in a new production, writes Tom Foot

PLAYWRIGHT John Symonds has lived in relative obscurity in Hampstead for 40 years.
The 91-year-old rubbed shoulders with his generation’s literary greats.
Friend to George Orwell, lover to Joe Orton’s literary agent Peggy Ramsey, biographer of dark arts master Aleister Crowley, he has written over 40 volumes of plays, essays, biographies and children’s books.
Symonds’ life story – his rise and fall from the public eye – is as interesting and fraught with controversy as his work.
And as an adaptation of his play The Poison Maker waits in the wings at the Angel’s Old Red Lion, director Vicki Carpenter explains that the life and work of the lesser-known playwright is closer than one might think.
Based on a true story the play submerges itself in one of society’s last remaining taboos – incest.
When author Graham Greene read the script he wrote: “Ejaculations such as these are not for the nature of publishing – frankly I do not care for it.”
When Felix visits his stepmother in the countryside for the first time she gets a little more than she bargained for.
Set in Edwardian England, a mother and son’s relationship has bordered on the incestuous, and it is not long before the bohemian upbringing of this bizarre and beautiful boy stirs the sexual desires of his stepmother.
Symonds’ controversial play is set for a revival thanks to the efforts of his son Tom – who collects rare books and artefacts and lives in West Hampstead – and Ms Carpenter.
Under the guidance of the director, Tom Symonds has had a tumultuous introduction to fringe theatre circles.
“I’ve been told to f-off three times this week,” he laments.
Tom gave the rarely performed script to Ms Carpenter after seeing her perform at Leonie Scott Matthew’s Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead last year.
Ms Carpenter was ecstatic.
She says: “What makes it so interesting is that the play is so obviously based on his own experience.”
Tom Symonds said: “Some writers are not appreciated in their time. Perhaps that will be the case with my dad.”
John Symonds is known for his biography of Aleister Crowley, The Great Beast. Crowley was a self-proclaimed drug and sex fiend, chess-master, and author of books on the occult and magic.
Symonds senior was Crowley’s literary executor and friend, but after his death published a biography that exposed his darker side.
Ms Carpenter says: “He exposed Crowley through that book. It was very controversial at the time.”
After the biography, Symonds became editor of the literary magazine Lilliput. There he befriended George Orwell and the children’s illustrator Andres Francois. But after a falling out with Joe Orton’s agent Peggy Ramsay, the playwright retreated from the public eye, writing reams of manuscripts with little or no attempt to get them published.
Ms Carpenter said letters between the two were freely available in the British Library and that their falling out showed they were more than just friends.
She says: “I really do believe John is the best living playwright. He’s better than Joe Orton. But he has been neglected. If he had had a better relationship with Peggy I think he would have been a really big name.
“I think they were more than friends, but that’s up to you to decide. Their love letters are in the British library – I don’t think that’s a big secret.”
Ms Carpenter, who plays the repressed stepmother Mrs Tebb as well as directing the play, said many of Symonds’ plays often dealt with incest and that there were some parallels with his life.
She says: “I think the incest theme surfaces in five of his plays.
“People are often sanctimonious about incest. It’s because it involves children. Of course the sex is abuse but Felix is quite happy. It is a perfect relationship in some ways.
“At any rate, the play explores the subject. It doesn’t condone it.”

• The Poison Maker is at the Old Red Lion
020 7837 7816
until Feb 18.
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