The Ruffian on the Stair
Lantern Theatre (Brighton Fringe)
May 5, 2017
Best known for Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane, Joe Orton first proved his potential as a dramatist with a short radio play, The Ruffian on the Stair, broadcast in 1964. Later rewritten for the stage, it is less regularly performed due to its brevity but its 50-minute running time does make it ideal for fringe festivals. To mark the 50th anniversary of Orton’s death, Blue Devil Theatre is premiering a new production of the play at Brighton’s Lantern Theatre as part of Brighton Fringe.
The black comic writing and twisted morality of Orton’s later plays is plain in The Ruffian on the Stair from the start. It opens on Irish ex-boxer Mike and his wife Joyce getting ready for the day in their tiny flat in London. While they act out the traditional roles of hard-working husband and housewife, Mike turns out to be a small-time gangster preparing to carry out more of his shady activities while Joyce is a former prostitute who has repeatedly changed her identity and now spends her days in kept idleness. Into this world comes strapping angry young man Wilson, apparently looking for a room to rent but clearly intent on revenge on someone after the death of his brother.
Oozing sex and menace, Elliott Rogers is a powerful presence as Wilson, who terrifies Joyce but brings out the mother in her with his vulnerability and feelings of loss. Kiki Kendrick is sensuous and tough as Joyce, a survivor who loves her goldfish more than any man, while Pádraig Lynch plays Mike as a posturing brute with a wildly misplaced sense of respectability. They have a good handle on Orton’s unique comedy, speaking his extravagant language with the utter seriousness it requires to be funny.
With a stage packed with period props including one of Tretchikoff’s kitsch portraits, director Ross Dinwiddy has set the action in 1967 – not only the year of Orton’s murder at the hands of his lover Kenneth Halliwell, but the year of the play’s first fully staged production at the Royal Court and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. While this new production presents Wilson as being as masculine as he is muscular, stripped down to only his briefs by the end of the play, he speaks of his dead brother in a homoerotic way that gives him the air of a gay “ruffian”, invading the lives of a heterosexual couple whose relationship has merely the superficial veneer of respectable marriage. With a new production of Loot coming to London’s Park Theatre in August, this new outing for The Ruffian on the Stair is a timely reminder of Orton’s talent that flourished for only four years before his untimely end.
May 26 & 27
Lantern Theatre, Brighton