The Ruffian on the Stair, By Joe Orton
Alma Theatre, Clifton
{Review date: Weds 13th July}

By Sophie Lomax

Let’s be honest: Clifton may be leafy and lovely, but surreal? Not until now.

But Joe Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair, his 1967 comedy sporting the blackest of underbellies, has turned the Alma Theatre into a hive of strange events and folk spouting sinister non sequiturs.

A pair of off-centre characters – ex-call girl Joyce and Mike, a contract killer and contender for most dismissive partner on the planet – live cooped up together in a bedsit with only goldfish for stimulation.

Their tiny world is turned on its head with the arrival of a bizarre young man looking for a room, his intentions unclear and his actions spiralling from charismatic to outright scariness.

There are some glorious one-liners, particularly from Mike, played with taciturn energy by Eoin Slattery, whose opaque reasons not to stay in include: “I’m seeing a man might be able to put me in touch with … something.”

Dee Sadler is wonderful as Joyce, increasingly terrified yet still exuding a desperate glamour and wholly inappropriate pride that a complete stranger may or may not have come into her room to molest her. She doesn’t want to run away to safety outside. Her reasoning? It’s because of the cold: “I might get piles – I don’t need that, on top of everything else.”

Actor Danann McAleer doesn’t, perhaps, inject Wilson, the young man, with quite the level of horror you might hope for, given the abundance of shotguns, empty corridors and insults flying about, but he is convincingly vulnerable, deciding not to end his own life despite grief because “suicide is difficult when you’ve got a pious mum”.

And a great, witty added treat last night was a post-show appearance by Avril Elgar, the actress who played Joyce in the original production just two months before Orton was battered to death by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, in his own London bedsit.

She spoke movingly of how Orton was ‘a cherub – so happy and cheerful’, in contrast to Kenneth Halliwell. And Avril said Ruffian on the Stair was “the only play I ever wanted to do another run of”.

She said: “It’s still ‘of the moment’ and relevant to audiences today.” And she praised the Alma cast, adding that Dee Sadler brought out colour and complex emotion “not even in the original production”.

Catch the thespian goldfish and this intriguing play at the Alma until Saturday.