Simon Ward reviews The Ruffian On The Stair at The Hope Theatre
Joe Orton’s plays call for excellence in production and playing to match the brilliance and heightened language of his writing. Fortunately, everything in this show at the Hope, from the top-notch cast (Lucy Benjamin, Gary Webster and Adam Buchanan) to the wonderfully claustrophobic set, wittily chosen music and careful direction by Paul Clayton rises to the challenge.
It is actually a great venue to see this in. We are round the corner from the flat in Noel Road which Orton shared with his lover Kenneth Halliwell: a photograph of the road forms the backdrop to the set. The audience literally forms three of the four walls, and those in the front row practically form part of the furniture. Rachel Ryan’s design emphasises the vulnerability of these characters – they are barely even concealed from the street as the slats show through the wall. The door is so rackety the lock comes right off – no protection at all.
Joyce (Lucy Benjamin) and Mike (Gary Webster) are living a kind of simulacrum of genteel life – he goes out to work while she looks after the flat. But the work he does is unclear, and probably on the wrong side of the law – why else would he need to keep a gun in his dressing table drawer? She too seems to have a shady past, when she was known by another name. And although they live as man and wife they are not married. So their attempt at respectability is fragile, and will soon collapse when a young intruder (Adam Buchanan) turns up and points out the hidden lies behind their lives.
The show inhabits the murky world of the kitchen sink drama. Echoes of Pinter and, especially, the Graham Greene of Brighton Rock abound. But Orton’s unique skill is his fearlessness – just as he is unafraid of the power of his language, his characters, in this case the boy, are unafraid to challenge the hypocrisy they see, or to seek redemption in the face of lies and death.
In spite of its dark themes and menacing tone the play is also very funny, with the blackest of Orton’s trademark humour in evidence throughout, and I defy anyone not to laugh at the breathtaking ending.
Originally written for radio, and with a running time of just an hour, this one of the lesser known of Orton’s plays. This production makes a compelling case to change that.
The Ruffian On The Stair runs at The Hope Theatre, Upper Street, Islington N1 1RL until 16th February