The Ruffian On The Stair – June 2010


By Joe Orton

Directed by Emma Faulkner

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Tuesday 8th June 2010

This was the second piece in the Directors’ Showcase. I think the program said this was Orton’s first play. It certainly felt like an early piece, though the themes of homosexuality, religion and death were strongly evident, as was the use of commonplace, even banal language with slightly ‘off’ behaviour to bring about a strong sense of menace.

Joyce and Mike live in a small flat, not much more than a bedsit. He’s an Irish enforcer type with misogyny running through him like Brighton rock. Almost as deeply imbedded are his religious principles, although they don’t deter him from bumping off the occasional victim at the behest of some unspecified crime boss.

Joyce used to work as a prostitute, but now she lives with Mike in a pretend marriage, putting up with his bullying ways either because she knows nothing else or because she’s too scared to try for something better. Or both. Along comes Wilson, who turns out to be the very loving brother of Frankie, the most recent chap to have been mown down by Mike’s van. Apart from freaking Joyce out with some seriously anti-social behaviour (this being the sixties, there was no one else around to witness his activities – remember them days?) his intention seems to be to commit suicide by having Mike shoot him over his, Wilson’s, supposed affair with Joyce, or Maddy, as she used to be known (and definitely in the biblical sense). I did wonder briefly if he also intended to get Mike arrested for killing him, to get some sort of justice for Frankie, but then I realised I’ve been watching too many crime dramas.

To be fair to Wilson, he did apologise to Joyce several times for any inconvenience he was causing her, like getting her rather violent ex-boxer of a pretend husband to think she’d been unfaithful to him, but there was a silver lining to all of this. When Mike actually considered killing her, the prospect of spending the rest of his life alone was too scary to handle, so he decided he loved her, and wanted to stay with her. It’s possibly the most romantic moment in the whole of Orton’s oeuvre.

So at the end of the play, Wilson is lying dead on the floor of the flat, just as he wanted all along, Mike and Joyce are as close as they’re ever likely to be (he’s going to tell the police he shot Wilson to defend Joyce from being attacked) and the only real casualty, apart from the pre-deceased Frankie, is the poor goldfish, whose bowl was smashed by a stray bullet. Still, it gave us one of the best closing lines I’ve ever heard in a play. As Mike comforts Joyce, telling her he’ll call for the police to sort it all out, he reminds her that they, too, have wives. And goldfish. Excellent finish.

The set was much more complicated for this one. In front of us was a sink cabinet, with both shaving and washing up equipment – I could smell the coal tar soap. To the left of that was a sideboard, then the door to the bedroom in the corner. Diagonally opposite us was the sofa, with a comfy chair to the left, a table in front of it, and a small cabinet to the right which held the crucifix and a small statue of the Virgin Mary. The outer door was in the far right corner, and to our right was the kitchen table and chairs. Props and costumes were all wonderfully period.

I realised watching this that one of the reasons I don’t get on so well with some writers such as Orton and Beckett is that I wasn’t brought up a Catholic, or any particular religion for that matter. I often feel there’s something I’m missing when I watch these plays, and perhaps there is. Still, I got most of the humour today, and I certainly found it uncomfortably menacing at times. The performances were perfection, and I only rated it 6/10 because there was so little to it. At fifty minutes long, it certainly packed in the action, but it took a little too long to establish Wilson’s connection to Mike, and the unpleasantness of both men towards Joyce was never going to endear me to the play.

Post-show. There were several attempts by one gentleman in the upper level to hijack the discussion with a solo diatribe on the awfulness of the first piece, Tom’s A-cold. Fortunately the audience and the two young directors (Sam sent his apologies) managed to fend him off.

Lora found her play through attending a play reading at Oxford(?) several years ago, and had wanted to put it on stage since then, so this was the perfect opportunity. Emma found it quite hard to select her play. Her remit was to find a short piece by a well-known writer which used three or four characters, and ran for only fifty minutes. It took months, but finally she thought of Orton and discovered this play, which she hadn’t known before. They each had to direct on their own this time – no assistants for the first-time directors – although they did the casting process together. I got the impression that as well as learning a lot about what the director’s job entails, they’ve also started to establish their network of contacts, which can be so important in many areas of life.

Apparently we were a quite sophisticated audience – not too many of us fell asleep, and we laughed at some of the jokes. Our quick response to the second line of Ruffian told them we were with the cast from the off. Perhaps the grim nature of the first play made us more receptive to the humour of the second – we needed a good laugh by then – although both pieces were pretty dark. Many people enjoyed both of the plays, though in different ways, and the cast and directors were warmly applauded at the end.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at

Prick Up Your Ears – August 2009


By Simon Bent, inspired by John Lahr’s Biography and the dairies of Joe Orton

Directed by Daniel Kramer

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Saturday 29th August 2009

There was an additional bit of humour for this audience only, or for most of the audience anyway. The play was about to start, with Matt Lucas as Kenneth Halliwell alone on stage, when an elderly gentleman, still to find his seat in row B, held proceedings up for a few minutes. The natives were getting restless, but with a few little expressions, a glance at his watch, and some slight head shakes, Matt had us in fits of laughter and still got us back for the actual start of the piece. Masterly. (The elderly gentleman did try for a reprise at the start of the second half, but apart from a few people snapping at him he didn’t make as much of an impact.)

Now for the set. There was an outside brick wall with two windows fronting the set before and between the acts. A road sign bottom left told us this was Noel Road, Borough of Islington, and by the end of the play a blue plaque had appeared in the middle of the wall to commemorate Joe Orton’s time there (I didn’t spot it any earlier). Once lifted, the bedroom of the flat was revealed in all its sixties splendour. The ceiling was tiled in alternating pink and yellow, like a ferocious Battenberg cake, and with a central ceiling light. The door was centre back, giving the occasional glimpse of the bathroom and access to the kitchen (off right) and front door (left). The walls were mostly bare, though behind Halliwell’s bed a collage of pictures was taking shape. This collage grew and grew, taking over the other walls, and finally the ceiling was lifted up to show another level covered with pictures. (I assume this represented the ceiling itself, as it was too tricky to replace that.) The two beds were against the back wall (Halliwell’s) and the left wall (Orton’s). There was a large stereo player to the right of the door, a mirror on the wall to the right of that, and loads of shelves and books. Near the right front was a desk with the typewriter and later the telephone. Clothes were kept on the floor or tidied away in the drawers under the beds.

The play covered the relationship between Orton and Halliwell from their early work to improve the drab lives of library book borrowers in their neighbourhood through Orton’s success and Halliwell’s increasing insecurity to the expected bloody ending. I felt the writing was sympathetic to Halliwell though not blind to his difficult temperament, and made it clear that he did contribute to Orton’s success, at least to some extent. I’ve no idea how accurate any of it was, but the play worked well on stage, all the performances were good and we had a very enjoyable afternoon.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at