THE RUFFIAN ON THE STAIR has more dollops of menace in its 55 minutes than there are potatoes in a generous helping of Goulash.
Based on a novel (The Boy Hairdresser) by Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell in the 1960s, the play (first performed in 1967) has been scintillatingly revived by Paul Clayton (director) and Anthony Orme (producer) at The Hope Theatre in London’s Islington.
It is a wicked combination of nastiness, undertones (overtones) of homosexuality, incest, domestic violence, prostitution and malice. And if that is not enough to sate your theatrical appetite, two goldfish are thrown in for good measure.
All within an hour – time for a meal afterwards and a forensic wash-down to wipe away the play’s unpleasantness.
The Hope’s splendid production rattles along at a great lick, helped by some fantastic acting from Lucy Benjamin (downtrodden Joyce), Gary Webster (a snarling Mike, Joyce’s partner) and Adam Buchanan – an enigmatic Wilson, the hairdresser, whose character would sit comfortably in any Harold Pinter play.
A fine cast who leave their various successful pasts (as characters in EastEnders and Minder) backstage and reinvent themselves as the warped individuals Orton painted them as. EastEnders’ former nasty Nick Cotton is not a patch on either Mike or Wilson.
It is all pretty unsavoury whichever way you want to dissect the play. Mike is an ex-boxer, deeply unpleasant and a low life whose sexual appetite is varied. Catholicism courses through his veins. He spends his days and nights out in his van meeting men. All rather ambiguous. All rather suggestive.
Joyce, a third generation prostitute but now retired, seems worn down by life’s travails and is both bored and bullied (by Mike).
Into the mix is thrown the youthful and cocksure Wilson whose brother Frank has been killed in a hit and run. Initially looking to rent a room at the dilapidated home of Joyce and Mike, he quickly invades their lives like a thoroughly nasty cancer. He sows seeds of discord on both sides. His mission? Revenge for the loss of his beloved Frank? Or is it more macabre?
The play is excellently directed by Clayton who in late 2017 gave a stellar performance as Mr Bates in Dennis Potter’s creepy Brimstone and Treacle. The scenes are short and sharp (all set in Joyce and Mike’s grubby home) and cleverly defined by bursts of music from the 1960s and temporary darkness. Great combined work from designer Rachael Ryan, composer Christopher Madin, stage manager Gianluca Zona and Chris McDonnell – lighting design. The Hope Theatre’s physical tightness also helps intensify the claustrophobic atmosphere.
Little separates the three actors in terms of excellence. Benjamin’s Joyce is deep fried in oil containing strains of vulnerability, fear and loneliness. Webster’s Mike is immersed in a vat containing a potion of vileness although like Joyce there is a slither of vulnerability in amongst it (maybe why they connect). As for the excellent Buchanan, his Wilson moves smoothly between polite and thuggish mode. Menace par excellence.
This is a marvellous revival of a wicked play from the extraordinary pen of Orton (and Halliwell). Clayton has triumphed – as the applause at the end of the performance (February 7) confirmed.
Indeed, rapturous applause louder than the noise often made just up the road at the Emirates, home of Arsenal FC.
Catch The Ruffian On The Stair if you can. It ends February 16.