For a career that spanned just three years before his brutal murder at the hands of lover Kenneth Halliwell, Joe Orton had a profound effect on the theatrical landscape. Rather aptly, and tragically, The Erpingham Camp and The Ruffian on the Stair formed a double bill at the Royal Court in the year of his death (1967) under the heading ‘Crimes of Passion’; this play was in fact based on a novel written by both Orton and Halliwell, The Boy Hairdresser. This new production, running for a limited time, is directed by The Hope Theatre patron Paul Clayton.
Joyce and Mike are eking out an existence in their Islington flat; he spends his time running shady errands for quick cash, while she’s left at home all day. It all seems fairly straightforward & ordinary, though the status of their relationship is an indication of the complicated past that Joyce, in particular, has experienced. One day, when Mike is out on a job, Joyce is visited by a young man (Wilson) in search of a room to rent – his extraordinary confidence that he has the correct address wrong-foots her, and she allows him to come in and have a cup of tea. His stay is short-lived, however, as he quickly unsettles Joyce with talk of murder… When Mike returns, she struggles to get him to understand the seriousness of the situation – as a result, her paranoia increases and the danger becomes more apparent.
This is actually the first Orton play that I’ve managed to see, and now I know why his work has been recommended to me on several occasions! Full-on black humour (with a hint of the absurd) and plenty of intrigue are the key ingredients here, and they make for an entertaining & gripping 60-minute play.
The auditorium is in thrust configuration, so the audience gets a fly-on-the-wall view of the action. Rachael Ryan’s design has to be commended – not only for creating a detailed & accurate representation of the interior of a small flat, but also for the more artistic backdrop. The wallpaper rips away to reveal a wooden frame, plus a black & white image of a typical street, so as soon as you enter the theatre you know almost exactly the intended destination, and you feel immersed in Orton’s London. Christopher Madin’s compositions add to the atmosphere, injecting a chill at just the right moments – there are also some cleverly done sound effects which demonstrate Joyce’s torment impeccably.
A script such as this could be very exposing if there were any weak links in the acting chain – thankfully this is not the case here, as the cast of three are pitch-perfect. Gary Webster is believably thuggish as Mike, visibly unsympathetic towards his partner’s strife; Lucy Benjamin’s Joyce becomes increasingly hysterical & angry, though as we know that she’s telling the truth it actually becomes quite heartbreaking – her solo scenes where Joyce is thinking aloud are also very well played. At first, Adam Buchanan’s Wilson is rather sinister – all Home Counties charm veiling his threats – but as you learn more about his motivation, the performance is more affecting and quite pitiable.
Every aspect of this production is superbly well done.
My verdict? A terrific introduction to Joe Orton with a superbly well done production of a lesser known play – the cast of three are absolutely spot on.
The Ruffian on the Stair runs at The Hope Theatre until 16 February 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.