Joe Orton’s The Ruffian On The Stair was originally a radio play first broadcast on the BBC Home Service in August 1964 and based on a novel The Boy Hairdresser which was written by Orton and his partner (and his murderer), Kenneth Halliwell. The title is taken from a poem by William Ernest Henley: “Madam Life’s a piece in bloom, death goes dogging everywhere. She’s the tenant of the room, he’s the ruffian on the stair”. I don’t think “dogging” had the same connotation as it does now back in late Victorian England although it would be very Ortonesque if it did!
Now the play which Orton re-wrote for the stage in 1966, comes to The Hope Theatre although the producers have set it in 1967, possibly as that was the year Orton died and also the year homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK. The piece has been seen on the stage before including at the Brighton Fringe in 2017 but this is a brand-new production and a fine one it is too.
In The Hope’s tiny space above a pub in Islington (the area where the play is set), designer Rachael Ryan’s set is a work of art. Not only do you feel as if you’re actually in a tiny, walk-up flat in the sixties with its Formica table, mismatched chairs and odd bits of furniture but you can almost smell the mildew on the chilly, dank walls. Living in the flat are Joyce (played by Lucy Benjamin) and Mike (Gary Webster) who have been thrown together by circumstance. Mike is a minor criminal who is always going out to meet “interesting people” and Joyce is a woman with a past, working as a prostitute up north somewhere. They have an odd, disconnected relationship, one they seem to cling to for expediency’s sake rather than love.
Then one day whilst Mike is out on some kind of nefarious errand, the doorbell rings and the mysterious, teenage figure of Wilson (Adam Buchanan) is at the door ready to bring mayhem to the couple’s lives. Wilson claims there’s a room to be rented (“I’ve come about the room. I’m not coloured – I’m from the Home Counties”) but he’s really there to see Mike as he thinks Mike has murdered his brother and he’s seeking reassurance and closure of some sort. His arrival is to cause great disruption in all of their lives and like all of Orton’s work, it’s obvious that it isn’t going to end well.
At just under an hour, The Ruffian On The Stair is a recognisable precursor to Entertaining Mr Sloane which was completed not long after and you can see the genesis of Orton’s first full-length play in it. It too features a young man disrupting the life of an older couple although in Sloane, they’re brother and sister.
The Ruffian On The Stair is typical Orton with its stylised language, attacks on religion (in this case Catholicism with the Pope being branded “The Vicar of Christ”) and some wonderful, pointed comments about the English working class such as lines “I don’t believe in charity – unless I need it”.
It also has themes Orton would explore more in future works like incest, murder and homosexuality. To complement the superb set, the performances from the cast of three are all excellent. Lucy Benjamin’s Joyce is a ball of pent-up angst as she loves Mike but he won’t let her forget her sordid past. Gary Webster as Mike is a villain but not very high up in the pecking order and is just carrying out orders from his masters but he’s obviously lonely and he needs Joyce for company. Adam Buchanan as Wilson is at first menacing but in reality, he’s missing his dead brother with whom he probably had an incestuous relationship. Buchanan plays the hairdresser with a campness that reminded me of a young Kenneth Williams who was an Orton stalwart. Paul Clayton who directs has brought out the best in his actors who are natural and real in a hyper-realistic way that is suited to the piece. It also has one of the best last lines I’ve heard from a long time.
As Orton says in the Radio Times, “If you weigh my play The Ruffian On The Stair in the balance of good taste, you have been short measured”. However, if bad taste is your thing or you’re a fan of the late lamented playwright, get down to The Hope in Islington before February 16th; I can guarantee, you won’t be short measured at all.
Review by Alan Fitter
A darkly comic tale of love, sex for sale, Catholicism, homosexuality, power, lies, loneliness and goldfish. “The heart is situated just below this badge on my pullover. Don’t miss, will you?”
When a young man says he’s looking for a room, he has so much more on his mind. For Joyce, an ex-prostitute, hiding away from the world, does he bring release, or a different kind of ending? Left alone by her protector Mike, she has to deal with the intrusion on her own terms with unexpected results.
Placing his characters in a world of mystery, Orton taints their lives with the ordinary and the mundane, giving them a language that is entirely unique, he peels back the skin to outrage, shock, and amuse with a dark and farcical cynicism. This classic comedy of menace tells of shady meetings and a desire for revenge. Originally written for radio and first staged at the Royal Court in 1967, the year Orton met his death at the hands of his lover Kenneth Halliwell.
THE RUFFIAN ON THE STAIR
by JOE ORTON
The Hope Theatre
207 Upper Street
London N1 1RL
29 Jan – 16 Feb 2019