Thursday, 31 January 2019

Theatre review: The Ruffian on the Stair

The similarities between Joe Orton and Harold Pinter's work don’t always jump out at you, but timing is everything and the Hope Theatre’s production of The Ruffian on the Stair comes near the end of Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season, specifically after The Room. Written as a radio play (and later revised for the stage) in 1963, it’s hard not to see The Ruffian on the Stair as a response to Pinter’s debut from a few years earlier. Both short plays are set in a poky apartment in a larger building, in which the lady of the house is terrorised by unwelcome visitor(s) when her husband is out, driving a van for what is probably some nefarious purpose (although in Orton’s case, the purpose is eventually made very clear.) Joyce (Lucy Benjamin) is a former (and possibly current) prostitute now living with Mike (Gary Webster,) whom she calls her husband - although whether or not they’re actually married seems up for debate.

While Mike’s out at work, Joyce receives a visit from Wilson (Adam Buchanan,) a young man who talks his way into the flat saying he’s heard there’s a room available to let. Polite to a fault but creepy and threatening, he frightens Joyce but she’s not who he’s really interested in.

Wilson’s older brother Frank was recently killed in an accident, and he believes the culprit is Mike, whose real job is as a hit-man who runs people over in his van to make it look like an accident. Insinuating himself into his life looks like he’s plotting some kind of revenge, but as we get to know him it starts to look more like a death wish. So in terms of the plot it’s no wonder Pinter comes to mind, something that’s probably exacerbated by the fact that Paul Clayton’s production doesn’t quite embrace the adolescent thrill of shocking the middle classes that’s such an Orton trademark. Benjamin in particular plays Joyce very naturalistically meaning it plays out as a weirdly low-key thriller rather than black comedy. In the confrontations between Buchanan and Webster some of the necessary archness does take hold though.

I was also a bit distracted by Rachel Ryan’s set design, with its backdrop suggesting the flat opens straight out onto the street; it contradicts the dialogue (and title) placing the flat on a higher floor in a large building, with Wilson creeping menacingly up the stairs. At least the packed tiny stage restores some of the claustrophobia that’s lost by that odd design choice.

If it takes a little while to settle into its rhythm The Ruffian on the Stair does benefit from Orton’s quietly subversive lines; Mike opening the show by saying he’s off to meet a man in the King’s Cross public toilets is a reference that can still be picked up on, and the show is built around the author dropping in suggestive references in the hope of scandalising his listeners. Mostly these are gay references – there’s got to be a question mark about whether Frank actually was Wilson’s brother, because if they were siblings their relationship was definitely too close. Hopefully as the cast relax into their roles more of the tongue-in-cheek nature of the play’s darkness will come out; at the moment the show is entertaining, but doesn’t explore some of the play’s more subversive dimensions.

The Ruffian on the Stair by Joe Orton is booking until the 16th of February at the Hope Theatre.

Running time: 55 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Anthony Orme.

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