“Orton’s words are still able to provoke the same levels of intrigue, laughter, and sympathy today that they did fifty years ago”
The Ruffian on the Stair gave notorious playwright, author, and library book defacer Joe Orton his first success. Today, it is rarely performed and somewhat obscured by his later work. And, whilst the play may be very much of its time, The Hope Theatre’s new production shows that his unique style of black comedy is as funny today as it was fifty years ago.
Mike (Gary Webster) was a promising young boxer – but what he does now is shrouded in mystery. All we know is that it involves a van and the attendance of meetings that will help him get “jobs”. His wife, Joyce (Lucy Benjamin), is a former prostitute who spends all day at home in the couple’s London flat. Their solitary existence is disrupted by the sudden arrival of Wilson (Adam Buchanan), a young man whose quest to rent a room devolves into a sinister plot to undermine their safety and exact a bizarre kind of revenge.
None of this sounds especially funny. But Orton’s singular style allows him to conjure a vaguely absurd version of real life that is both comic and tragic. For the most part, director Paul Clayton is able to draw out the many layers of irony to great effect. There are occasional moments where this feels heavy-handed, but it doesn’t seriously impact our investment in the story. It helps that the set (designed by Rachael Ryan) has an intimate, claustrophobic feel, with some audience members practically sitting in Mike and Joyce’s kitchen. Such close proximity keeps us engaged even when the pace slows down.
The three actors create multidimensional, sympathetic characters. Lucy Benjamin’s Joyce is both comically naïve and desperately afraid. Her excitement at the fact that her husband is meeting someone in an ‘exciting place’ like a toilet at King’s Cross station is balanced by her frustration at his refusal to acknowledge her anxiety. Gary Webster brings depth to thuggish Mike, balancing his cold-heartedness with a distinct sense of vulnerability. Webster and Benjamin have great chemistry: their performances suggest a couple whose love for each other has been corrupted by fear. Of the three, Adam Buchanan’s performance as Wilson is the most striking. He has the perfect mix of deceptive innocence and mild antagonism, and is able to switch from deadpan irony to sinister psychosis in seconds.
Whilst it is unlikely that The Ruffian on the Stair will ever be as popular as Loot or What the Butler Saw, The Hope Theatre’s production proves its worth as a piece of theatre. Orton’s words are still able to provoke the same levels of intrigue, laughter, and sympathy today that they did fifty years ago.
“The dialogue, in the hands of the accomplished trio of actors, is music (sometimes thrillingly discordant) to the ears throughout”
Written in 1950, Eugene Ionesco’s “The Lesson” has lost none of its strangeness, nor its resonance. It exemplifies what has been coined ‘Theatre of the absurd’ of which Ionesco is master. A powerful three hander it beats to the palpitating rhythm of a macabre merry-go-round upon which the archetypal characters of the Professor, the Pupil and the Maid are fated to ride.
The Maid is busy mopping the floor of the Professor’s study as the audience take their seats. A seemingly innocuous pre-show. For those familiar with the play, I don’t need to state its significance; and for those unfamiliar, I won’t. So let the lesson begin. The Maid fussily withdraws having ushered in the new Pupil. It gets off to a smooth start but it’s not long before the Professor becomes increasingly frustrated with his protégé’s inability to grasp the rudiments of mathematics. Roger Alborough wastes no time establishing his stage presence with a performance that is chillingly playful. But playful in the way a predator teases with its prey.
Sheetal Kapoor is quite extraordinary as the Pupil, transforming from compliant, naïve schoolgirl into a shattered marionette. As her enthusiasm for the lesson deteriorates her toothache increases; clearly a metaphor for her psychological pain. In fact, the whole play is a metaphor, a cautionary tale for today, further exemplified by Joan Potter’s Maid who repeatedly has to clean up the mess. Potter makes the sinister aspects of this play quite palpable with an understated performance pitched with just the right amount of irony. Yes, it’s gruesome but, hey, it’s absurd so it’s okay to laugh.
Donald Watson’s translation is further heightened under Matthew Parker’s slick direction. The dialogue, in the hands of the accomplished trio of actors, is music (sometimes thrillingly discordant) to the ears throughout. Repeated banalities, unshackled illogicality and non sequiturs all compete for air time. Comedy and violence, absurdity and disturbance, mystery and fear all go hand in hand; so the audience’s reactions are varied. While some are laughing, others are recoiling in horror.
The experience is sharpened by the confines of the space. Encased in the round, neither the actors nor the audience have room to escape, and there’s even less room for a fourth wall. Although the cast never address the audience directly we are drawn into the impossible dialogue: there is no barrier between us and them, between reality and fantasy, which intensifies the unnerving quality of the writing. Simon Arrowsmith’s filmic sound design adds the final layer; a gossamer cloak of atmosphere that fits the action perfectly.
Gripping through to the final scene in which the absurdity pours over the action like blood from a knife wound, “The Lesson” has something to teach us all. And this production at the Hope Theatre is, without a doubt, a high-grade lesson in theatre making.