Review: The Ruffian on the Stair

5 star rating
Joe Orton's bold comic tragedy gets a rare airing in Paul Clayton's hugely watchable production that lifts the play out of the shadows, proving very funny and still rather audacious.
The Ruffian On The Stair at Hope Theatre

Image: Hope Theatre

Theatre: Hope Theatre

Closes here: Saturday 16 February 2019

Joe Orton

Paul Clayton


Lucy Benjamin - Joyce

Gary Webster - Mike

Adam Buchanan - Wilson


A darkly comic tale of love, sex for sale, catholicism, homosexuality, power, lies, loneliness and goldfish.

"The heart is situated just below this badge on my pullover. Don't miss, will you?"

When a young man says he's looking for a room, he has so much more on his mind.

For Joyce, an ex prostitute, hiding away from the world, does he bring release, or a different kind of ending?

Left alone by her protector Mike, she has to deal with the intrusion on her own terms with unexpected results.

Placing his characters in a world of mystery, Orton taints their lives with the ordinary and the mundane, giving them a language that is entirely unique, he peels back the skin to outrage, shock, and amuse with a dark and farcical cynicism.

This classic comedy of menace tells of shady meetings and a desire for revenge.


Brimful of Orton's trademark coruscating wit, violence, sexuality and death are never far from the surface, THE RUFFIAN ON THE STAIR is the 8th in-house production from The Hope Theatre's award winning team.

It follows their previous, award nominated shows THE LESSON and BRIMSTONE & TREACLE and Offie award winning LOVESONG OF THE ELECTRIC BEAR.

It's directed by Paul Clayton whose directing credits include York Theatre Royal, The Watermill, Newbury and Nottingham Playhouse.

As an actor Paul has appeared in a multitude of TV dramas and comedies including Him & Her and Peep Show, various West End stage appearances and, most recently, BRIMSTONE & TREACLE at The Hope.

He became Patron of The Hope Theatre in 2017.

The Ruffian On The Stair was originally written for radio and first staged at the Royal Court in 1967, the year Orton met his death at the hands of his lover Kenneth Halliwell.

ActDrop reviews

Peter Brown

Performance date: Thursday 31 January 2019
Review star rating image

Joe Orton's The Ruffian on the Stair is based on The Boy Hairdresser, a novel the playwright wrote with his lover, Kenneth Halliwell.

The play was first broadcast by BBC radio in 1964 and was subsequently re-written for the stage.

So this hugely watchable production, deftly directed by Paul Clayton, is set in 1967, slightly later in the swinging sixties than the original.

Messrs Halliwell and Orton lived in a bed-sit in Noel Road, Islington - just over 1km away as the crow flies from The Hope Theatre, where the play is now temporarily resident.

That makes it more than a fitting location to stage this work, and the intimate nature of the venue provides exactly the perfect setting for a rather strange three-hander that features a man who kills for a living, an ex prostitute and a young man who seeks to terminate his life after the untimely (and non-accidental) death of his brother.

The title of this short but memorable comic tragedy comes from William Ernest Henley's poem 'Madam Life's a Piece in Bloom' which starts ...

"Madam Life's a piece in bloom,

Death goes dogging everywhere:

She's the tenant of the room,

He's the ruffian on the stair."

With the main action taking place in the living room of a dingy, unmodernised 60's flat, the audience sits almost on the set, making us feel like members of the cast, or maybe nosey neighbours.

That intimate proximity, though, may also harbour a drawback - or at least initiate a quandary - because the many comic lines are often immediately followed by more serious and/ or poignant ones, which often leaves the audience wondering whether to laugh or not.

I confess that I did laugh a great deal, though there were moments when I had to stifle my giggles - but such is the nature of Joe Orton's work.

The Ruffian On The Stair

Adam Buchanan (left, Wilson) and Gary Webster (Mike) - photo by Anthony Orme

Rachael Ryan's excellently-devised set is hardly the kind of polished and swish interior that many Islington flats might boast these days, but it fits perfectly with the cheap and shoddy nature of the setting that seems to be decaying from the inside out.

There's plenty of 60's bric-a-brac on display and a fish bowl resides on the drainer that has an important part to play come the final scene, counter to its diminutive size.

Flawless performances from the cast bring to life a story that is still both bold and audacious.

Director Paul Clayton sets a brisk pace, with lines tumbling from the characters in quick-fire rapidity, and Christopher Madin's compositions admirably add to some of the more sinister moments.

If you've never seen one of Joe Orton's plays before, this fine production is certainly a perfect taster which will undoubtedly have you yearning for more.

And if you've already seen his better-known hits, it's good to compare them with this rarely-produced piece because it offers a glimpse into the playwright's development, providing an insight into his extraordinary mind, his love of black humour and his interest in ambivalent characters who don't always behave as we might expect.

The Ruffian on the Stair is - in spite of its many comic moments - a rather tragic play that embodies a hint of Joe Orton's own tragic demise at the hands of his lover back in 1967 (if you want to read more about the playwright - born John Kingsley Orton - check out this page).

I used to think that Ruffian on the Stair was almost like the baby of the family in Joe Orton's catalogue of works - not quite grown-up, yet still showing ample signs of the playwright's inventive and unshrinking mind.

But this production opened my eyes - though it might not be the best of the playwright's work or a 'great' play in its own right, it is nonetheless a very funny piece, in spite of and even because of the perturbing nature of the plot.

And it clearly demonstrates that Joe Orton saw comic possibilities in almost every conceivable situation - even murder.

Moreover, it is more than worth a visit for the final line on its own which kept me laughing all the way to the tube station and most of the way home - one of the funniest final lines I've heard.

Loved it.

ActDrop listing for Hope Theatre
Our show listing for The Ruffian on the Stair
Read our reviews' policy

Show of the month ticket offer ...

Buy tickets for School of Rock at the Gillian Lynne Theatre