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Brighton Fringe 2013

The Ruffian on the Stair

3:1 Theatre Company

Genre: Drama

Venue: The Dukebox


Low Down

Joyce – "Have you got an appointment today?"

Mike – "Yes, I’m to be at King’s Cross station at eleven. I’m meeting a man in the toilet."

Joyce – "You always go to such interesting places."

That could only be Joe Orton. No-one else ever wrote dialogue quite like that. Pinter can look superficially the same, but he put in lots of ‘significant’ pauses and mysterious references. With Orton the delivery is completely natural, the subject matter is totally realistic, and the effect is … unsettling.


I’ve been a fan of Joe Orton for a very long time – I saw Leonard Rossiter play Inspector Truscott in ‘Loot’, in London in 1984, and I’ve seen most of Orton’s other plays. But never ‘The Ruffian on the Stair’ – it’s very seldom performed – so I was very curious to see what 3:1 Theatre would do with it.

In fact, they’ve done nothing with it. By which I mean that director Jess Barrett has resisted the temptation to ‘interpret’ it, or ‘re-envision’ it – she obviously loves and respects Orton’s script, and she’s given it to us exactly as Orton intended.

‘Ruffian’ was Orton’s first play, originally for BBC radio – and it was after the success of ‘Loot’ (his first stage play) that he re-wrote it for the theatre. He was very clear, even that early in his career, of the effect he wanted to achieve, and his notes for the first (Royal Court) production, urge – ‘Everything the characters say is true … The play must be directed without long significant pauses. Any pauses must be natural pauses. Pace, pace, pace as well. Go for the strong and natural climaxes. Everything else should be simple.’

And that’s what Jess Barrett has done. There’s nothing superfluous in this production. While we took our seats in the small theatre at ‘The Dukebox’ a man was dressing; buttoning up his white shirt, tightening his belt, pulling on braces. He was facing the audience as he smoothed down his rather lanky dark hair, gazing at himself in the (invisible) mirror that was obviously mounted on the ‘fourth wall’.

The man continued checking his appearance until we were all seated and the lights went down. Then a woman came on, wearing a loose dress in a small floral print and carrying a plastic washing-up bowl which she placed on a black box at the front of the stage. The man fiddled with a clip-on bow-tie, and looked at the woman as she gave us her first line – the one that starts this review – "Have you got an appointment today?".

Mike and Joyce are in middle age, and have been together for two years. Joyce has apparently had a dubious past, which seems to worry Mike, while he in turn has a mysterious job which involves driving a van. It’s the normal scene-setting dialogue you get at the start of most plays, but in Orton’s hands all the facts seem out of alignment, like the planes in a Cubist painting.

Luke Morphen-Hedges gave us a convincing Mike; preening himself, sure of his sexual allure and his physical strength. I took him for late thirties on stage, and it was only in the bar afterwards that I realised he couldn’t be more than his early twenties. Ellie Markwick must be the same age, but she too brought a middle aged drabness to the character of Joyce. Slightly anxious note in her voice, as well – this is a woman who’s known a lot of failure in her life.

The word ‘minimalist’ could have been coined to describe the stage at ‘The Dukebox’. Everything is black – the backdrop curtain at the rear of the stage as well as the wing curtains at either side, and the actual acting space can’t be more than four metres across and it’s less than two metres deep. It’s tiny, and there’s nothing to distract from what’s happening in that enclosed space. For this production the only props were a chair, a small table and a coat-stand. And an unpainted pine door, set in a doorframe in the wing at the left of the stage.

Mike pulled on a long black coat over his white shirt, checked that the watch chain was properly tucked into the breast pocket, and departed for his ‘meeting’. Joyce was left alone, and suddenly there was a knocking at the door. It’s Wilson, a younger man with short hair and a battered leather jacket. As he stepped into the room we got a classic bit of Orton – and a reminder that this was written in the nineteen sixties –

Wilson – "I’ve come about the room."

Joyce – "I’m afraid there’s been a mistake. I’ve nothing to do with allotting rooms. Make your enquiries elsewhere."

Wilson – "I’m not coloured. I was brought up in the Home Counties."

Matthew Martin actually looked like a man in his early twenties. He was a touch hesitant at first, but that passed, and Martin gave us an insistent, cocky Wilson, with that mixture of boyish politeness and reptilian menace that Orton wrote so well. Wilson is obviously a prototype of Sloane in ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’.

Wilson frightens Joyce, then leaves, and on subsequent visits succeeds in setting Mike off against Joyce – terrifying the woman with sexual innuendo while playing on the man’s sympathy, his Irish background and his Catholicism. For Wilson doesn’t actually want a room, he has another agenda, and it finally becomes clear that Mike had been involved in the death of Wilson’s brother. The action gets deeper, and darker, finally ending in another death. Several deaths, actually, not all of them human …

‘ No attempt to match the author’s extravagance of dialogue with extravagance of direction.’ demanded Orton, and indeed Jess Barrett’s direction ensured that all this was played out with complete naturalism. It sounded just like normal dialogue, delivered totally straight, except that the lines themselves have a surreal quality - 

Mike – "What’s your profession?"

Wilson – "I’m a Gents Hairdresser."

Mike – "You wouldn’t have to be dabbling with birth-control devices? That’s no way for a Catholic to carry on."

Wilson – "I don’t handle that part of the trade. My old man does it. He has the free-thinking frame of mind. I can’t approve, of course. It’s the Latin temperament which has been the curse of our religion all along."

Sex (both straight and gay), prejudice (class and racial), religion, and of course death – all the usual Orton themes are here, and 3:1 Theatre have given us a very expressive rendering of this classic play. They had an inspired choice of venue, too. The Dukebox stage is very small, and some companies might find it cramped, but for this staging it was perfect – the actors were forced into close proximity, and that brought out the intense, claustrophobic feel of the piece. I’ll remember this production for a long time.