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The Ruffian On The Stair at The Hope Theatre

The Ruffian On The Stair at The Hope Theatre. Anthony Orme.
The Ruffian On The Stair at The Hope Theatre. Anthony Orme.

I have never finished reading Joe Orton’s Diaries. I went through several copies but could never hang on to them. The reason for that, I believe, is that the publicity flash on the cover said, in giant letters, “STEAL THIS BOOK”.

Various students, cast members, technicians and off-spring duly obliged so I’ve never been able to finish it. Probably the person who would have enjoyed that story most would have been Joe himself. That engaging, rude, mischievous, promiscuous, outspoken scallywag of a playwright who bequeathed us such gems, before his violent and untimely death at the age of 34, as Loot, What The Butler Saw, The Erpingham Camp and here, at the Hope, in Paul Clayton’s superlative production, The Ruffian On The Stair.

Ruffian: let’s start with that, shall we. Not a word Millennials would use, I surmise – it has a very forties/fifties/sixties feel to it. These days no one says “I was approached in the street by a ruffian” do they? In fact, if anyone’s likely to enunciate it currently it’s going to be Jacob Rees Mogg. The word is classic Ortonese. It’s steeped in the aura of the outsider, the slightly down-at-heel chancer, the petty criminal, the rough, underhand street-wise villain, the bandit. Just like Joe Orton.

Wilson, the fresh-faced, well-spoken, smooth-talking, nicely-suited ‘ruffian’ in this production is played with impeccable sinister undertones by Adam Buchanan. The self-effacing charm that gushes from his pores like slightly rancid honey sets up his prey for his switch-blade of a tongue to skewer any unsuspecting ingenue to the faded wallpaper of their insecurities. In this case, the ‘ingenue’ is the not so young but gushingly innocent Joyce, a former street-walker fallen on good times. Lucy Benjamin infuses the character with the slumbering guilty residue of a former practitioner of the oldest profession and couples it with the wide-eyed rabbit-in-the headlights stare of someone who can’t cope with anything more complex than pots of tea and goldfish. It’s, quite frankly, an astonishing performance, never more so than her utter bone-marrow-chilling desolation at the discovery of an unintended consequence at the end of the play (expertly “raising the trivial to the tragic” as Director Clayton describes it – no spoiler). I’d be prepared to travel a very long way for a performance of this quality.

Joyce’s ‘husband’ Mike is played with wide-boy-like confidence by Gary Webster. He’s a kind of flash Harry without the flash and Mike’s devil is in the detail of Webster’s acutely forensic characterisation. He has the false machismo of a perennial bully, but stand up to him, confront him – as Wilson does – and he’s just a limp dick of a milksop who likes to put his overcoat on his bed against the cold: bless. Webster is superb and the interplay with Benjamin is so authentic that it hurts.

My guest remarked to me that sitting in the Hope’s intimate space was actually like being in the “first floor flat in Islington” (nice programming by Artistic Director Matthew Parker!) And she was right – Rachel Ryan’s remarkable set design puts you right there, right in it, with clever use of partly exposed walls – so we can actually see who’s on “the stair” – combined with a very sixties-style clutterama that puts in mind Orton’s own claustrophobic bed-sit – in Islington. You have to be some Lighting Designer, in my view, to get it effective and right in such a small space so I take my hat off to Chris McDonnell for his excellent work here.

What a cast for Director Clayton to have at his disposal and what a great job he makes of it. The intensity of the action in the confined space and the unerring genuineness of the language create the medium to channel the
complex themes of religion (Catholicism), death (an Orton obsession) and repressed homosexuality that the playwright loved to explore in his work.

Originally a radio play, The Ruffian On The Stair was later paired with The Erpingham Camp under the title Crimes of Passion at the Royal Court. At Orton’s funeral Harold Pinter finished the eulogy with the words “He was a bloody marvellous writer”. And that is still plain to see, all these years later, on his home patch at the Hope. Great writer, great show: get to see it if you possibly can.

5 Star Rating

Review by Peter Yates

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.

Listings Information
The Hope Theatre
207 Upper Street
London N1 1RL
29 Jan – 16 Feb 2019


  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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