‘This is a great opportunity, not to be missed, to see an Orton play performed as it should be – full of menace and humour.’
The Ruffian on the Stair opens with Mike telling his partner Joyce that he is off to King’s Cross station because he’s ‘meeting a man in the toilet’. She replies innocently: ‘You always go to such interesting places.’
This was the public’s first introduction to the work of Joe Orton. An hour long play originally produced for radio in 1964, it’s unknown what the British public made of Orton’s play or, indeed, whether they even understood half of what he was implying.
One thing is certain, Orton’s work still makes for compelling viewing. The premise is that when Mike (Gary Webster) leaves the flat for his mysterious appointment, Joyce (Lucy Benjamin) is visited by Wilson (Adam Buchanan), the ruffian of the title. Wilson is ostensibly looking for a room to rent (even though one is not available in the building), but it soon becomes apparent he has other motives. His brother (who was also his lover) was recently killed, rundown by a van. Coincidentally Mike’s van is currently being repaired. Is there a connection?
Lucy Benjamin and Gary Webster are superb as Joyce and Mike, and Buchanan portrays Wilson’s conflicting feelings perfectly. Sometimes menacing, Wilson is also vulnerable and genuinely devastated by his brother’s death. All three actors play their parts with relish but, more importantly, play it straight. Orton is often performed with the actors sending up the characters and it can become unwatchable. But Paul Clayton’s tight direction does the script justice. Furthermore, Rachael Ryan’s excellent set faithfully recreates all the dreary detail of post-war Britain, making this a very classy production.
The play occupies an interesting place in Orton’s development as a playwright. Although he had been writing for over a decade with his partner Kenneth Halliwell, this was his first performed work. The influence of Pinter is noticeable, which is less prominent in Orton’s later work. There is another important difference about the play. Peter Gill, who directed the first stage version of the play in 1966, once reflected that Wilson is the only character in Orton that goes on a genuine emotional journey, brilliantly captured by Buchanan in this production. As he refined his style, Orton’s plays became more hard-hitting and funnier, but Wilson remains his most sympathetic character.
The production is a welcome revival of a somewhat neglected Orton classic, staged a short walk away from where he lived and died. This is a great opportunity, not to be missed, to see an Orton play performed as it should be – full of menace and humour.
Editor's Note: You can read our interview with director Paul Clayton here
Photography: Anthony Orme
the ruffian on the stair
The Hope Theatre 29 January - 16 February 2019
Reviewer Andy Curtis is a playwright who regularly has plays performed in London fringe theatre.