Browse reviews

Brighton Year-Round 2023

The Ruffian on the Stair and Funeral Games

Lantern Theatre

Genre: Absurd Theatre, Comedy, Dark Comedy, Drama, Farce, LGBT Theatre, Short Plays, Surrealism, Theatre

Venue: Lantern Theatre, Brighton


Low Down

Joe Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair and Funeral Games come to the Lantern Theatre for four performances. This in-house double bill of one-acters is directed by Daniel Finlay and Mark Burgess respectively. A fitting end to the Lantern’s extraordinary week

Written by Joe Orton and directed by Daniel Finlay and Mark Burgess, Set Design and Music by Lantern Theatre,

Technical, Lighting & Sound Operator Erin Burbridge.

Produced by Janette Eddisford

Till August 12th


Joe Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair and Funeral Games come to the Lantern Theatre for four performances. This in-house double bill of one-acters is directed by Daniel Finlay and Mark Burgess respectively.

The Lantern and Orton seem synonymous. Not just this magnificent Orton week, of which this double bill is the culmination. It’s a real tradition. The first production I remember seeing here was a cut-down student Loot back in 2015, and in May 2017 a Ruffian on the Stair. This year an excellent visiting production of that play was praised by Andrew Kay, who’s authoritative on Orton, and which alas I missed.

Now another production returns, coupled with the later, though rarer Funeral Games of 1966. It’s a must-see, mainly because we rarely see Funeral Games. And of the two, it’s the more successful production.


The Ruffian on the Stair directed by Daniel Finlay

Daniel Finlay directs the The Ruffian on the Stair as if it’s a period piece announcing Orton himself, as character, actor and writer – it’s impossible not to see a projection of Orton in the handsome bisexual vengeful Wilson who turns up at neglected Joyce’s doorstep just after her shady partner Mike departs starched with indifference riffed with curious jealousy.

It’s his first work independent of Kenneth Halliwell, though drawing on their shared novel The Gentleman Hairdresser, and written whilst Orton was alone in prison in 1963-64. Though it’s been polished. During his most frenetic creative period – October 1966- July 1967 – Orton not only wrote three plays but revised this one.

The audience is as often here set in an L-shape. The single set’s a tide-marked clutter of 1960s period cabinet and at one end a bed, on a raised rostra. The dresser’s well-sourced and stage right, a bowl of goldfishes, Joyce’s glistering inner life perhaps. It suffers.

Sounds later of breaking glass are fairly crisply conveyed and gunshots, a little faint. But I’ve rarely heard them so well-synched. Shout out to tech, lighting and sound operator Erin Burbridge.

The overall sense here is Orton unstrung. It’s the first performance; pace will tighten. It’s crisp enough, though lacking playfulness, edge. Farce should run at “critical farce speed” as Tyler Butterworth who acted with Orton, said in this space only yesterday, reflecting on Orton performances with great actors. But 2017’s Ruffian suffered similarly: it’s far more difficult to get right than it looks.

These actors expose the potential lack of Ortonesque richness in this first play, though also show how this work’s popularity is down to solid storytelling Orton later abandoned. But those edge-on, insouciant non-sequiturs hair-pinning round to danger, already apparent, slacken in this first performance of the run.

Mickey Knighton’s Mike busies himself jabbing his coat at Tia Dunn’s Joyce. The Catholic crook who never hesitates to place his Irishness like a brand to his long-saturated wife, is bored with this amorous woman he picked up off the streets. Knighton’s voice is idiomatic too, and with physical assurance he anchors this production.

Marital exchange has long faded: “At Kings Cross station. I’m meeting a man in the toilet.” “You always go to such interesting places” Joyce wistfully rejoins. Not only a coup but Joyce’s deadpan acceptance of the veiled gay reference in 1964 is thrilling. It’s difficult to know if the normally riveting Dunn’s being deadpan here. To raise surprise might guy the absurdism, though she might sound more wistful.

With Orton the burlesque, the cabaret pump and push of “verbs and nouns that could create panic” force us away from sitcom through Milliganesque farce. It’s not naturalism exactly, though playing straight is one solution, taken here.

Kane Magee’s Wilson arrives with a burl of energy he doesn’t quite know how to wield. He’s a serious rather than comic young actor, recently graduated (his showreel’s impressive). He could slouch into Ortonesque though lacks playfulness, danger. He can threaten Joyce in their first encounter. There’s the death of his loving tattoo’d brother involving a mysterious van.

This Wilson lacks as yet menace. It’s as if Magee’s seen the generically dangerous Orton type and feels it’s all mouth chewed with sexual asides. Well it is. Orton’s rage though drives the shattering of every chintzy gentility within striking range. There’s an icy fury in Orton grounded in his own life, prison, sexuality, that echoes Genet for example.

We need to imagine how incandescent this is for 1964: the sound of splintering glass that’s nothing to do with the glass he’s actually breaking offstage. One line’s modified: “I’m not Jewish” Wilson now rejoins to Joyce’s refusal to let a non-existent room. “I was brought up in the Home Counties.” That hits two bullseyes.

The crux for Wilson’s repeated entries becomes clear when Knighton confronts him. Their almost sexual bonding is perhaps the most convincing of the whole performance, the consummate Knighton’s Irishness making the most compelling case for it. Magee’s energised by it. So when Wilson rounds on exiting we’re shoved from absurdism into Whodunnit:

“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 denouement’s unexpected; it doesn’t go the way we might expect; reactions parody what you predict. Again, stage management from Burbridge produces some neat effects.

Finlay’s direction navigates this production with a feel for period not all his actors share – they don’t generate authenticity from each other. This might be more down to Magee’s Wilson not feeding Dunn’s Joyce’s reactions, though they find their own moment. Dunn and Magee share a scene of complicit sexual combustion faintly echoing Streetcar and prophesying Entertaining Mr Sloane. We need a blue flame here.

It’s a brave insight, though even naturalism here needs a coiled manner, a knack of chill and ice-cold attraction the actors except Knighton can’t quite give back to Finlay’s downbeat vision.


Funeral Games directed by Mark Burgess

Though liked by Fringe productions, this 1966 work originally for TV is a rarer beast. Dramatist Richard Crane attending the performances perhaps put his finger on it, declaring almost offhand: “With The Ruffian on the Stair you feel a lack of one-liners, but with Funeral Games Orton’s stuffed it with them, to the exclusion of any shape.” Nevertheless this production’s more satisfying.

Games is a transitional work between Loot from 1965, and Orton’s final work What the Butler Saw, completed in July 1967 weeks before his death. It’s also twinned with The Good and Faithful Servant, another TV work. They were commissioned with other playwrights as part of the Seven Deadly Virtues, guying Justice/Pride and Faith respectively. Only the latter was initially produced, another writer’s (John Bowen) preferred: with Funeral Games finally airing posthumously on Yorkshire ITV in 1968.

So what is Funeral Games: “Athletic competitions held in honour of a recently deceased person.” Athletic certainly, games de rigeur, honour, well it depends what you do with the body. It’s not Loot, bodies don’t tumble out, but there’s a hand. Or it’s an upending of the adultery and wife-gone-missing trope.

That rostra is used again with a rich supply of a double set’s holy end, with a real wooden pew and desk suggesting a vestry of sorts; and the slouchy chair and dresser where a man slumbers.

Cult leader, preacher, and con-artist Pringle (Mickey Knighton, here more RP vicar) hires wannabe-thuggish criminal Caulfield (Kane Magee) to investigate an anonymous report that his wife Tess (Tia Dunn) is having an affair with a defrocked Catholic priest. “The humble and meek are thirsting for blood” he declaims, vowing vengeance.

Knighton’s assured with a sauve cultish cross blazoning his body offering all sorts of holy water and seeds to Caulfield, which Magee wittily disposes of with disguised contempt.

Magee plays on Caulfield’s fundamental sense of justice, indeed truthfulness and makes a case for him as a natural criminal with an even more natural moral compass. Magee eschews obvious thuggishness, indeed the Ortonesque, plays it straight.

Caulfield investigating declares the report’s mistaken: Tess’s visits to the priest McCorquodale (Daniel Finlay) are innocent. We’ve just seen them together. Dunn, in a tight 1960s gal accent (the sort who might be attracted to the defrocked) seems at ease here, radiating disappointment.

Finlay’s in his element; though you expect nothing short of consummate his decades-debauched slouch and weariness is authoritative, indeed one can’t entirely forget Finlay’s repeated revivals of Damien, the Leper priest, last seen here in June. How Finlay enjoys a loosened forbidden dog collar, offhand admissions of murder, laconic excuses as to disposal. One-liners fugue at such a speed they almost cancel each other in the memory.  “All classes are criminal today. We live in an age of equality”.

Since McCorquodale’s killed his own wife and buried her in the cellar. Pringle still wishes to kill Tess, but instead tells people she has “gone away”, a classic ploy used when one has killed one’s wife. Orton suggests “gone to Australia” is the new buzz-code. Pringle’s intention is to gain respect as a killer. Tess agrees to live out of sight with McCorquodale. There’s still her old schoolfriend to dispose of, and this is a slightly streamlined version. For instance when discovering the hand (it’s not actually human):

Caulfield: I couldn’t get her head off. It must be glued on.
McCorquodale: She was always a head-strong woman.

These lines bounced off and I somehow missed them.

Pringle’s plans are in danger of being ruined when an offstage reporter threatens his new reputation by suspecting that Tess is not dead at all, and accuses Pringle of being innocent. Renewed murder plans follow: tyings-up, tyings-down and fortuitous discoveries in a trunk intended as a coffin dragged on. Finlay, Knighton and Dunn end up dancing to Magee’s justice in singular ways.

There’s a moment for a “plain-clothes” raincoated Police Officer (Nuala Eddisford-Finlay) right at the end with a final um killer line, though she should take a bow with the rest.

Burgess has something of the grip of Orton here. Overall Funeral Games is a thematic advance and the actors revel a bit more in the more frequent one-liners. Finlay and Knighton wholly inhabit the idiom, and with more of a run, perhaps more time overall, everyone would feel Orton in the same way.


It’s a fitting end to the Lantern’s extraordinary week. Producer Janette Eddisford, as well as Finlay and Burgess (who hosted last night’s Talking Orton) deserve huge credit for mounting an Orton week in what would be his 90th birthday year, and in the week he died, 56 years ago.