A lesser known Joe Orton play was the incentive for a long overdue visit to the Hope Theatre in Islington. I’m guessing most people wouldn’t be able to name more than three of his plays; Joe Orton actually wrote nine that have at some point been performed on stage. So I’m fairly certain The Ruffian on the Stair is one of the six you don’t know. It was originally written as a radio play and first broadcast by the BBC in 1964. We are told the story of Joyce (Lucy Benjamin), who lives with partner Mike (Gary Webster). Their cosy existence is disturbed by the mysterious Wilson (Adam Buchanan) who is looking for a room.
Although given short shrift by Joyce, Wilson finds a sympathetic ear in Mike. But Wilson has intimate knowledge of their lives and soon begins to manipulate the couple. Long simmering tensions come racing to the surface as Joyce and Mike struggle with uncomfortable home truths.
Overall, the play works reasonably well, in no small part due to a talented cast, two of whom will be familiar to soap fans. Lucy Benjamin is a stalwart of Eastenders and Casualty, while Gary Webster has appeared in a host of TV dramas including Minder and Family Affairs. They add warmth to their respective roles because they are instantly recognisable. Meanwhile Adam Buchanan is an emerging talent who plays the role of Wilson with aplomb. However, there is an alarming lack of substance in Joe Orton’s work, and it only gains status as a creation of the 1960s. The play hasn’t worn particularly well, with reference points that stretch the memory to its limits (any idea how much half a crown is worth, and don’t you dare google it!).
The Ruffian on the Stair borrows heavily from Entertaining Mr Sloan (arguably Orton’s finest play). The premise of an outsider, that is; the lodger who worms his way in, then plays both ends against the middle…sound familiar? There are recurring themes of sexuality, religion and deceit. That said, it remains an engaging piece thanks mainly to three actors in sparkling form.
Author: Joe Orton
Director: Paul Clayton
Producer: Anthony Orme for the Hope Theatre
Box Office: 0333 666 3366
Booking Link: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/whats-on/207-upper-street/the-hope-theatre/the-ruffian-on-the-stair
Booking Until: 16 February 2019