The Ruffian on the Stair and The Erpingham Camp

Joe Orton
Galleon Theatre Company at the Greenwich Playhouse
(2003)

I've seen a number of productions at the Greenwich Playhouse in the past three years, and this was one of the highlights. The performance space is small, and there is little distance between actors and audience - a revealing proximity, as you can really see the actors working.

These two short plays reflect Orton's preoccupations and the two sides of his personality - the dark, sinister, seedy side with The Ruffian on the Stair, and the zany, flamboyant side with The Erpingham Camp. Both plays contain references to sixties issues - the identity crisis of post-imperial Britain, morality versus permissiveness, rich versus poor, class conflict, fascism versus communism, and race (particularly Irishness and Jewishness). The plays were first performed together in 1967 at the Royal Court Theatre, under the collective title Crimes of Passion.

On entering the theatre for the first of the two plays, the audience is able to spend a good few minutes contemplating the set, brilliantly realised by Alex Marker: a tacky sixties bedsit, dingy, damp-looking wallpaper with a geometrical pattern, an unmade single bed, two amusingly static goldfish in a bowl on the bedside table, a kitchen sink, a table, an armchair. The atmosphere of claustrophobia conjured up by this reflects the relationship of the couple who live there. And some nice ironic commentary is provided throughout by the sixties pop songs that punctuate the action (music and sound effects by Paul Weir), including Dusty Springfield's 'You don't have to say you love me' and Sandie Shaw's 'Puppet on a String'.

Peter Warnock plays the Irish ex-boxer Mike, good casting in terms of physical build and native Dublin accent, though perhaps a little too young-looking for Mike's declaration that he is 'too old to start again' to ring true. Conversely, Louis Tamone as Wilson (the ruffian of the title) is a little too mature-looking to be called a 'lad', though his air of threatening, smiling persistence is just right. Isabel Scott Plummer as Joyce looks and sounds good as the reformed prostitute, uncomfortable in her shabby and precarious domesticity, with her hair pinned back untidily and a garish quilted dressing gown hugged protectively round her (costume design by Simon Kenny).

Orton's economical writing and the cast's commitment to the piece ensures a tension which never sags, right up to the final climax in which, in Ortonesque surrealism, the static goldfish come into their own and the audience experiences a welcome, though ridiculous, sense of catharsis.

The Erpingham Camp is the perfect antidote to the darkness of Ruffian: light-hearted, frothy, scatty, satirical, but at the same time never losing sight of the shortcomings of human nature. Clearly modelled on the Butlins holiday camp phenomenon, it wouldn't surprise me if the popular TV comedy series Hi-De-Hi hadn't been influenced by this play, or if this current production hadn't been influenced by the TV series. It's an exuberant tour de force with never a dull moment. There is an excruciating middle-of-the-road-style variety performance at its centre, giving the audience an opportunity to sing along (as I did, with relish) to 'We all live in a yellow submarine', and the cast an opportunity to show how badly they can sing and dance (no insult intended - it's not easy to do something badly when you've been trained to do it well).

Inspired casting here for all nine characters, from the very tall, megalomaniac fascist boss, Erpingham (Adam Tabraham), to the very short, ambitious Acting Head of Entertainment, Riley (Vincent Shields), and the unctuous, sycophantic Padre (Jamie Honeybourne). Moira Healy and Richard Monk do well as the working-class campers who lead the 'palace revolution' against the Redcoats - Healy reminds me of Julia McKenzie, and would do well in Ayckbourn; Peter Warnock and Jane Allan contrast well with them as a middle-class couple, vainly urging moderation rather than anarchy. Debden Clarke is a glamorous blonde Redcoat with gleaming teeth, and Jonathan Loe is fun to watch as a 'camp' camp entertainer.

Looking at my theatre programme, I'm reminded that Orton died in 1967 - as most of us know, beaten to death by his partner. It comes as a shock, though, to see that he was born in 1933 - meaning that, if he had lived, he would be 70 years old this year. Pointless to speculate, of course, but I can't help wondering what kind of plays he would be writing today ...

Reviewer: Gill Stoker