FringeReview UK 2017
K V Heritage’s 2012 Man in a Room was premiered in Liverpool. This two-hander directed by Suzanne Buist is a single oblong set shafted with darkness (both sets designed by Steven Adams), which will soon break onto the second one behind it. Steven Evans and Mimi Godard’s lighting make particularly spectral use of one entrance. In The Ruffian on the Stair directed by Joseph Bentley, Adams, Evans and Godard surpass themselves.
It was a neat move to substitute Man in a Room for another play to accompany Orton’s debut piece. Thematically the dark one-act comedies work well together, though there’s an imbalance.
K V Heritage’s 2012 Man in a Room was premiered in Liverpool, though Heritage lives in Brighton. A nice bufferish older man is caught in a top-security germ warfare department and interrogated by agent Stevens. This two-hander directed by Suzanne Buist is given a tad less encouragement than normal by the set (both sets designed by Steven Adams), which will soon break onto the second one behind it. A black box, it might have benefitted from a little steely detail and lift; but its functionality is clear, an oppressive oblong lending a strip of darkness where Steven Evans and Mimi Godard’s lighting make particularly spectral use of Agent Stevens’ entrance, lending him a wan glow out of some hallucination.
Adam, or Dave, as the man identifies himself, baffles Nick Balfe’s Stevens, growing incredulous, reluctantly bargaining as the man’s identity begins to startle him. Much of the nature of existence is at least essayed, and Stevens’ faded Catholicism and Jesuisitical practices are stretched to the fullest in confronting someone whose purpose isn’t blunted by threats of torture. For one thing, the identity they have for the man is shown as someone who at 1.29am…. it baffles. It’s now the exact present, the audience behind the mirror screen, witnessing the interrogation.
Without revealing more, it’s worth noting that Nick Roche’s affable Dave recalls several avatars of this character, notably T F Powys’ 1927 novel Mr Weston’s Good Wine, and perhaps Heritage, who specialises in SF, might know some abstruse sources for this, his first drama. The dialogue and rationale is excellent: Heritage is a seasoned writer. Dramatist, though, he’s still becoming. Roche makes a good case for a kind of truth, though the arguments are perhaps about ten minutes too long. He’s believable. Balfe, whose excellence in so many recent productions hardly needs recalling, is just a pitch shy here of the steely and crumbling Stevens. He needs more weight to hang himself, perhaps, but the dialogue isn’t easy to essay.
This is a commendable attempt to revive a new play at short notice. It mostly comes off, and if there’s a fault it’s partly with Heritage, and partly perhaps that to bring this off you need almost superhuman planning and there’s little visual stimulus from the writing. It’d fit perfectly as a forty-minute radio drama.
The Ruffian on the Stair
The curtain is raided on a gallimaufry of pasted-over wallpaper as if we’re in Orton’s frantic interior pasted all over with news cuttings and casually-observed obscenities. With an orange stairwell and stick door, it’s a masterpiece of density: 1960s clutter, with Evans and Godard supplying everything from The Doors (a bit early) to The Animals (spot on). It’s had everything lovingly bestowed by Adams and his team that the previous set, necessarily fronting it, had to miss. It’s a stunning vision, up to the Adams team’s finest.
Joseph Bentley directs The Ruffian on the Stair as if it’s a period piece of heightened naturalism. It’s from 1964 though with The Doors possibly set here in 1967, the year of Orton’s death, exactly half a century on. It announces 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.
The set’s delightful clutter of 1960s period cabinet and for instance record player continually unfolds as if an extra character of its own. The dresser’s particularly well-sourced, a statue of the Virgin Mary, and stage right, a bowl of goldfishes, Joyce’s glistering inner life perhaps. It suffers. Opposite a front door’s framed. Sounds later of breaking glass are crisply conveyed.
Nick Kuh’s Mike busies himself shaving and jabbing the razor at Kerri Frost’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. Kuh‘s voice emerges idiomatically, flickering with contempt.
The marital exchange is neatly managed: ‘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 Frost is being deadpan here. To raise surprise might guy the absurdism.
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 (with its own rage) into its own country, edging Europe, tethered here with a mule kick. It’s not naturalism exactly, though playing straight is one solution, taken here.
Gabriel Phelan’s Wilson arrives with an insurance man’s raincoat he doesn’t quite know how to wield, and his voice isn’t as projected into the comic snarl it needs to be. It’s difficult to negotiate between sounding undershot, as here, and merely hectoring. Phelan’s attractively close to Orton’s own looks, slouching into mild Ortonesque. He can’t genuinely threaten Joyce in their first encounter though. Then there’s the death of his loving tattoo’d brother involving a mysterious van. That encounter needs ratcheting up.
This Wilson lacks menace though. It’s as if he’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. Phelan blanks the idiom and can’t quite 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. ‘I’m not coloured’ Wilson 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 Kuh confronts him. Their almost sexual bonding should perhaps be the most convincing of the whole performance, Kuh’s Irishness making the most compelling case for it. Here though it’s simply male bonding. There isn’t quite the delicious danger. 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.’
Phelan delivers this as an aside. The intention’s admirable, slightly lost in frictionless speed. The denouement’s unexpected; it doesn’t go the way we might expect; reactions parody what you predict. Bentley’s direction navigates this production with an admirable feel for period; Frost like Kuh seems authentic, they generate some sad sparks from each other. Phelan doesn’t quite feed Frost’s reactions though, though they find their own moment.
It’s a brave insight, though even naturalism here needs a coiled manner, a knack of chill and ice-cold attraction. We still get quite a lot of this delivered in Bentley’s vision and production.