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Brighton Fringe 2017

The Ruffian on the Stair

Blue Devil Theatre

Genre: Theatre

Venue: The Lantern @ ACT. 8-10 Rock Place. BN2 1PF


Low Down

In Joe Orton’s novel ‘Head to Toe’ he wrote – ‘Words were more effective than actions; in the right hands verbs and nouns could create panic.’

His biographer John Lahr understands that in his plays Orton was writing farce. ‘In farce, people are victims of their momentum. Survival and identity are at stake. Characters state their needs, but in the panic of events their words are abused or unheard. Unheeding and frantic, characters rebound off one another groping for safety. Orton’s plays celebrate the joy and terror of this disenchantment.’

Lahr says that in his plays – ‘Orton was looking for a way to ‘kill’ with language, a
language of annihilation where laughter ‘knocks them dead’. … Orton offered his audience grotesques which, like the gargoyles on a medieval cathedral, forced the public to imagine Hell and redefine Heaven.’


So it’s the language that’s the important thing in Orton’s plays. It’s why I’ve always loved them. I’m a long-term fan – many years ago I saw Leonard Rossiter play Inspector Truscott in ‘Loot’, just weeks before he died, on another night of that production. The language is in that play is crystalline, some exchanges are as good as Oscar Wilde. When Hal is explaining to Nurse Fay about his friend Dennis, she asks him –

FAY    Have you known him long?
HAL    We shared the same cradle
FAY    Was that economy or malpractice?
HAL    We were too young then to practice, and economics still defeat us.


I especially love the beginning of ‘Ruffian’ – that quiet early morning domesticity; the man shaving and dressing and preparing to go out, the woman carrying in breakfast on a tray, and then the opening lines –

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.

What! What the hell is going on here? The verbal exchange is so unexpected that we’re thrown … and immediately intrigued.

But in this production the effect was lost. Pádraig Lynch as Mike was almost inaudible as he mumbled the words. He was clipping his nostril hair at the time, which didn’t help, but he delivered the line as if he planned to go to the corner shop for a loaf of bread. There was no sense of irony in Kiki Kendrick’s response, either. Her completely even tone made it sound like the most normal event imaginable.

I was discussing the performance later, with an actress who also loves Orton, and we agreed that, while the playwright’s situations and language are essentially Surreal, this company was playing them as Real.

Playing them as real life, with dialogue delivered completely naturalistically, like a domestic sitcom. The audibility improved later on; but all the way through, the three actors addressed their words essentially to each other, rather than to us in the audience. They spoke at normal conversation speed, too, which makes it sound real, but doesn’t give the audience (unless they already know the work) time to absorb the meaning – and the occasionally very disturbing implications – of each line, before the next one arrives.

That said – the production looked the part, with effective staging locating the bedroom on a raised platform at one end of The Lantern’s acting area, and a statuette of the Virgin Mary on a small sideboard at the back.   They made good use of the ‘fourth wall’ too; there was obviously a mirror on it, and the front door of Mike and Joyce’s flat, and it defined their living quarters very believably.

The actors themselves were completely believable as people.  Pádraig Lynch brought out Mike’s Irishness better than I’ve seen it done before – his chummy relationship with Wilson quickly developing when the young intruder claims a common background.  And the Irish Catholic dimension was beautifully evoked with his unease about Birth Control and his constant little nodding appeals to the Virgin.  Chummy – maybe too warmly chummy – I never got the sense that Mike was in reality a hit-man, a killer.

Kiki Kendrick, with her pink peignoir and her flaming orange-red hair, gave us all the brassiness of Joyce the ex-whore, and then she was able to reduce herself to abject panic when Wilson starts to terrify her. For me, her most moving scene was when she was calling out through the (fourth wall) front door, trying to convince herself that the man ringing and hammering was ‘the Assistance’ and not the intruder she feared. Heartrending.

Elliott Rogers looked very much the part as Wilson, the young man who initially arrives asking for a room. He’s tall, and dark haired, and he was easily able to dominate and threaten Joyce in their first scene together. But Rogers didn’t exude any real sense of calculating menace – I’ve seen Wilson played so controlled and cold that it was reptilian, and there was no real sense of that here. And it’s not just about menace; when Joyce tells him that there isn’t a room available –

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

Rogers didn’t put any emphasis on his words, so we missed an important insight into the racist attitudes – the Colour Bar – that Orton obviously wanted to highlight when he was writing.

Emphasis. That’s what’s important in Orton. Emphasis on the ‘verbs and nouns that could create panic’. Wilson’s key speech is the one where he changes tack and reveals his hand to Mike –

WILSON     Well, I’m sorry I can’t stay. I must be going then.  Before I say goodbye would you mind telling me, as briefly as possible, why you killed my brother.

The key speech of the whole play – but it was delivered quickly and without any special power. A moment’s inattention and a listener would have missed it.

Others may (probably will) disagree; but to this reviewer, Ross Dinwiddy’s direction has been very effective at creating a believable and enjoyable situation comedy.  It’s just that, to paraphrase John Lahr, he hasn’t produced the grotesques which force his public to imagine hell and redefine heaven.