Joe Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair was initially conceived as a radio play, and later rewritten for the stage in 1966, a year before Orton was murdered by his lover Kenneth Halliwell in the flat they shared in Islington.
It remains a tantalising introduction to the playwright’s style, touching on several of the themes, such as incest, murder and homosexuality, that would come to characterise his work.
Paul Clayton’s revival negotiates the idiosyncratic cut and thrust of Orton’s epigrammatic dialogue uneasily at first. Lucy Benjamin and Gary Webster, as Joyce and Mike, a couple living in a bedsit, edge around one another nervously and things aren’t helped by Rachael Ryan’s well-appointed but claustrophobic set design.
The tone changes however with the arrival of Adam Buchanan’s enigmatic, smiling Wilson, the Ruffian of the title. Wilson’s arrival is the key that unlocks the comedy and brutality of the play and Buchanan confidently captures the cocksure, sneering authority of youth that Orton exploited in so many of his plays. All three actors warm up as the pace of the play quickens.
This early Orton may not be perfect, but Clayton’s production conveys a sense of how shocking the original must have been, heralding a new wave of black comedy. The production doesn’t wallow in nostalgia, despite the many period references but makes it seem fresh, funny and utterly ruthless.