Playwright Joe Orton loved to ‘push the envelope’. During the Sixties, Orton’s plays such as Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane showed an hitherto unseen side of British society on the stage and challenged the double standards of the ‘moral guardians’. In his first solo play, The Ruffian On The Stair (which is directed by Paul Clayton) we meet a ‘couple’ who live in a flat in Islington (not unlike Orton’s own abode).
Mike (Gary Webster) spends most of his time outside the flat ‘looking for work’. This invariably involves him dressing smartly and travelling to King’s Cross for ‘meetings’. Meanwhile, Joyce (Lucy Benjamin) spends most of her time indoors, with only her goldfish for company. The arrival of Wilson (Adam Buchanan) – a persistent young man who wheedles his way into her home – unnerves her, especially as he seems to know all about herself and Mike. Thinking Mike will ‘sort out’ Wilson once they meet, Joyce is perturbed that he falls ‘under his spell’…
Much like the visitor in Dennis Potter’s Brimstone And Treacle, Wilson’s presence portents to a shift in the dymamics at home and a general sense of unease. Much of Wilson’s early conversations revolve around comparing himself to ethnic minorities – either as a way of an affirmative comparison or as an ‘unwelcome outsider’. This, of course, indirectly refers to the open sentiment of landlords at the time who shamelessly put up signs saying: ‘No blacks, no Irish’. Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised in Britain until 1967, so for playwrights like Orton, he keenly felt the dissonance between society’s ‘open-mindedness’ and what it really tolerates.
Wilson’s obsequious efforts to ingratiate himself with Mike have an unnerving effect, making one wonder what his real agenda is. Through him and Mike, the dichotomy of those espousing religious piety (in this case Catholicism) versus their day-to-day behaviour is exposed. While neither man is genuinely devout, they think their lip-service to religion elevates them above the behaviour of women. This leads to comparisons with Joyce…
Benjamin’s Joyce has a palpable vulnerability to her. After years of being ‘in the family business’, Mike’s presence is meant to be reassuring and a safeguard against ‘troublesome young men’. However, we feel her isolation as she’s made to feel a stranger in her own home and her family’s history is thrown back in her face.
Secrets abound in the play and it’s possible to see the themes that will permeate in Orton’s later work. Almost absurdist at times, Orton’s black comedy sheds light on the dark corners of human behaviour, and the reinvention of oneself to assauge guilt and the past.
© Michael Davis 2019
The Ruffian On The Stair runs at the Hope Theatre until 16th February.