Writer: Don Cotter
Director: Ray Rackham
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Mods on their Italian scooters are congregating on Brighton seafront, near to the house shared by gay couple Freddie and Ted. It is August 1966 and Radio Caroline can be heard on their portable wireless, but then Freddie switches channels to the BBC Home Service, which is broadcasting The Ruffian on the Stair by the current playwriting sensation, Joe Orton.
Don Cotter’s new play takes place over approximately one year, the last in Orton’s life, against the backdrop of the outlawing of pirate radio and the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. We arrive at our seats, listening to tracks by the likes of Matt Monro and Dusty Springfield, by walking through a shabby living room that is awash with floral patterns. Justin Williams’ set design would have been just as perfect for a revival of Entertaining Mr Sloane or Loot.
The period references in Ray Rackham’s unhurried production are so precise and so plentiful that they threaten to overwhelm what is, in essence, a timeless piece, depicting a dysfunctional relationship. Middle-aged Freddie, still grieving for a love lost at Dunkirk, barely conceals that aspiring young musician Ted is an inadequate replacement, but the iskering couple are held together by strained mutual dependency and habit.
Robert Styles’ Freddie is pompous and unfeeling, obsessed with Orton and wearing a hat similar to one associated with the playwright even to bed. He throws a tantrum when Ted brings home the wrong brand of scouring powder, but remains oblivious to the fact that his partner may need affection and appreciation as much as financial support. Eoin McAndrew is touching as the brightly optimistic Ted, looking for the confidence to carve out a career for himself in music, but thwarted by Freddie’s devious and desperate efforts to hold on to him.
“Funny old life, you never know what lies round the u-bend” declares Ted’s friend Dilys (a spirited performance from Helen Sheals) in one of the very few touches of Ortonesque humour that Cotter provides. However, her grandson Glenn (Perry Meadowcroft), a laddish, sexually ambivalent and at first menacing interloper, is a character that could have come straight out of an Orton play.
There are times when Cotter’s attempts to show parallels between the central relationship in the play and that involving Orton and his possessive lover, Kenneth Halliwell, feel quite crude and too obvious. Nonetheless, repeated hints that Freddie and Ted could be heading towards the same tragic conclusion add simmering tension, particularly in the slowly-paced second act.
In structure, style and detail, Cotter’s play belongs to the era in which it is set. It has no clear relevance to 2017 and, while it considers the impact of Orton on his contemporaries, it does not explore his lasting legacy. Four solid performances make this production entertaining enough, but it is mainly notable for allowing us to wallow in 60s nostalgia.
Runs until 16 December 2017 | Image: Contributed