ComedyDramaReviewSouth East

JOE ORTON DOUBLE BILL: Ruffian on the Stair and Funeral Games, The Lantern Theatre, Brighton

Reviewer: Lela Tredwell

Writer: Joe Orton

Director: Daniel Finlay (Ruffain on the Stair) and Mark Burgess (Funeral Games)

With this darkly comic double bill, The Lantern Theatre round off a week of events celebrating the work of Joe Orton. Had he not been killed by his lover Kenneth Halliwell in 1967, the playwright would now be 90. Marking the anniversary of his brutal death, the theatre has created a series of thought-provoking events as a tribute, including Joe and Ken (a play devised by John Dunne and inspired by Orton and Halliwell’s relationship), a panel discussion ‘Talking Orton’, and tonight’s homage to the playwright’s bold, innovative writing.

The decision to juxtapose Ruffian on the Stair and Funeral Games has led to a lively conversation between the two plays. Both works were written in the mid-sixties and echo themes of violence, shifting morality and repressed sexuality. The far more farcical Funeral Games makes whimsy of murder, while Ruffian on the Stair has murder dangling dramatically before us, horrifyingly inevitable.

For Ruffian on the Stair, we open on the cramped, depressing apartment of Joyce (Tia Dunn) and Mike (Mickey Knighton). The set is very well realised and creates a fittingly claustrophobic feeling. Joyce has given up a seedy career to become isolated with her goldfish. Mike goes out on frequent dodgy jobs, roughing people up or taking them out entirely. When a strange man calling himself Wilson (Kane Magee) appears at their door, Joyce and Mike’s relationship is put under strain. The once fitfully possessive Mike sides instead with the stranger, leaving Joyce out in the cold.

Orton’s female characters have been accused of lacking complexity and depth. Joyce (Dunn) is sometimes difficult to understand, most particularly when she voluntarily hugs a man who is openly staging her false adultery and of whom she is terrified. Furthermore, earlier in the play when Mike tells her he’s meeting a man in a public toilet, either she ignores the implications or doesn’t cotton on. However, she is at least more rounded than Tessa (Dunn) in Funeral Games who is seemingly unperturbed by being confined to living with her care charge, being presumed murdered, or even to being murdered.

While Ruffian on the Stair was first broadcast on BBC radio in 1964, Funeral Games was written during 1966 for a Rediffusion series, The Seven Deadly Virtues. It leans further into Orton’s exploration of religion and into the differing views of morality. Pringle (Knighton), a religious leader, hires Caulfield (Magee) to investigate his wife’s suspected adultery. When it transpires she is instead caring for an infirm, defrocked priest, he decides she must still be punished with death. When going to kill her, he instead enters into a plan to pretend he’s committed the deed, while his wife lives with the defrocked priest McCorquodale, who has actually murdered his own wife, Val, a friend of Tessa’s. Following?

It does get somewhat nonsensical with one murder trying to be covered up and another trying to be proven without actually having been committed, but it’s a darkly comic flavour of farce which is a highly entertaining parody of murder mysteries. It’s also enjoyable to watch Knighton, Magee and Dunn switch to very different characters for this second instalment of Orton of the evening. Daniel Finlay shines as the ailing McCorquodale who delightfully sleeps in his chair in the dark while other scenes are taking place elsewhere on the stage. Finlay is also the director of Ruffain on the Stairs, while Mark Burgess is the director of Funeral Games. Funeral Games effectively makes use of lighting to focus us on the different spaces it occupies: Pringle’s place of work and McCorquodale’s home. Both exist on the stage at once which increases the tension of the piece.

Dissatisfaction with life, the darker side of attachment, and the cost of being an outlaw all ooze out of these works. Orton’s ‘sinners’ are brought to life by the cast and continue to shock with their bold use oflanguage. The plays are a thought-provoking reflection of the times and the life of their author. The shifting sense of morals has us reflecting on the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the heavy toll the stigma surrounding it continued to take. This double bill will provoke much discussion and is a worthy tribute.

Reviewed on 11th August 2023

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Darkly comic double bill

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