Friday, 1 February 2019

Up Against It… The Ruffian on the Stair (2019), Hope Theatre

“They think because you’re a criminal they can treat you like dirt…”

What is it about the Hope Theatre that guarantees an evening free from thoughts of the dreary daytime, tax returns and conveyancing fees? I think the place is haunted by the punks below and, increasingly by the ghosts of actors above, for I have never seen a bad play here.

Tonight, was yet another delight and Lucy Benjamin was outrageously outstanding as Joyce the reformed sex worker now dedicated to looking after her man. She radiates believability and a powerful emotional coherence throughout, handling Orton’s tricky, multi-levelled dialogue with naturalistic ease even in the midst of a scribbling cauldron of critics and, the potentially distracting presence of the genuinely great Kenneth Cranham.

Mr Cranham was only 18 when Orton cast him as the “ruffian” in the Radio 4 broadcast of the play and, he later also performed it at The Royal Court, he knew the playwright very well having starred in Loot for over 400 times so… a little more pressure on the cast tonight than having just your usual theatrical genius in the room!

To a man, well to a Lucy, Adam and Gary, they met the challenge and produced a perfectly choreographed dance of delusion and despair. Joyce (Lucy) lives with her man Mike (Gary Webster), an ex-boxer full of pride but also deeply troubled by the cards he has been dealt; he works as a hired hand, “fixing” things such as over-due financial transactions and third-party retributions.

Gary Webster amd Lucy Benjamin, photos all from Anthony Orme
He talks of meeting men in Kings Cross toilets and anyone who has read the Orton Diaries can only think of one reason but, as it legally had to be, Orton’s text is never specific, which makes it even funnier… for that brief and brilliant period in the mid-sixties, Joe ran rings around the powers that were, running his words off beneath their belts and over their heads. Orton was even asked to write a film for the Fab Four, Up Against It, which the lads would have loved had it not offered too difficult a sub-text for Brian and EMI.

One day while Mike is out working, a young man Wilson (Adam Buchanan) comes a knocking about a “room for rent” … Joyce is confused as there is no room for rent, but it soon becomes clear that the “ruffian” is a bereaved man who’s brother has recently been killed. Wilson’s appearance is entirely strange, this is An Inspector Calls on Valium washed down with rum and coke… and he asks whether Joyce’s man is the vengeful type and presses her into showing him his revolver.

Paul Clayton directs with an actor's instinct and intimate knowledge of this febrile venue. There’s always more than meets the eye and I love the playful way Orton juggles his narrative mystery knowing, with full confidence, that everything will not only fall into place but make absolute, devastating, sense in the end.

Lucy Benjamin and Adam Buchanan, photo by Anthony Orme
Soon Wilson calls when Mike is home and the real connections begin to be made clearer… In this brief but powerful play, love is stringer than hate and there’s an uncanny beauty in the central premise that is far from laughed away by the play’s hilarious final lines.

We cheered and we whooped, Ken looked happy and the three took prolonged applause.

In truth it’s not fair to single out Lucy alone for Gary Webster is also consummately at ease in this role with his every mannerism giving eloquent voice to his character, a man of pride but also with secret passions and a deep love for the “wife” he relies on so much he has to hide it through insults and everyday nit-picking: his ego is so fragile… what would he be without her?

And then young Adam is superb as the unsettling yet fragile ruffian intent on settling his score but in his own way. If this is a play of domestic invasion, it is also atypical for this lose “genre”: Wilson isn’t there to change their lives but to make sense of his own to pay a tribute beyond their ken… so many layers obscured by off-beat dialogue that moves parallel and at strange angles to the narrative… half a century later Ken’s mate Joe is still startlingly fresh and challenging.

Tickets from the Hope Box Office and you better be QUICK!!

IThankYouTheatre Rating: **** A reminder that the sixties weren’t all flower power but a time of huge social and artistic change; this play still cuts us to the raw and the acting is top notch. What a cast!!

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