The Ruffian on the Stair at the Hope Theatre
Writer Joe Orton’s first staged work The Ruffian on the Stair, created as a radio play then rewritten for the theatre in 1966 – a year before the author was murdered by his lover at his home in Islington – is an intriguing black comedy about homosexuality, religion, homicide, incest and domestic abuse, in which nothing is quite what it seems to be.
Veteran star Paul Clayton directs this Harold Pinter-inspired piece with mastery, and although the tone retains a vintage flavour, he has reworked it well as a timeless, wry comment on human nature unmasked at its most gritty and basic levels.
Former prostitute Joyce (Lucy Benjamin) and assassin-for-hire Mike (Gary Webster) are occasional lovers who live together in London; she spends her days at home, he – a talented but failed boxer – is out on “mystery assignments”. Their volatile relationship appears to be dominated by his cruel verbal abuse as he torments her with insinuations about his homosexuality via sordid accounts of an incestuous affair with his brother and anonymous “encounters” in the Kings Cross train station toilet.
After a cocky, menacing young stranger, the “ruffian” Wilson (Adam Buchanan), arrives on the scene with a pretext of seeking a room for rent, he ostensibly assaults Joyce, a prelude to his vengeful agenda. When she turns to Mike for safety, the latter instead finds a friend in Wilson, and deluded by his deceptive charm, is compelled to face the reality of his own sexual proclivities. Unexpected narrative twists unfold by the play’s end that add an element of mystery thriller to the piece.
Comedy, irony and tragedy are ingeniously synthesised in this superbly directed production. TV star Gary Webster is excellent as Mike, perfectly combining emotional coldness and machismo with beneath-the-surface insecurity and uncertainty. Also a popular television actress, Benjamin is a poignantly genuine Joyce, admirably exhibiting conflict and ambiguity of emotion and intent. Buchanan plays Wilson with remarkable skill and versatility, merging opposing aspects of character with impeccable effectiveness and timing. Rachael Ryan’s set is notably evocative, emphasising the suffocating intensity of the characters’ situation.
A clever, thought-provoking and witty exposé of human nature via a sort of film noir-ish whodunit involving lives on the edge and taboos, The Ruffian on the Stair is artful, sardonically smart, shocking and highly entertaining.
Photo: Anthony Orme
The Ruffian on the Stair is at the Hope Theatre from 29th January until 16th February 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.