Getting passionate about Orton's Greenwich double bill

Review by Paul Nelson

IT IS difficult to spoil the absolute joy of seeing a play by Joe Orton, and at the Greenwich Playhouse, as a reward for the faithful, there are no less than two plays in a double bill first put together at the Royal Court, where they were known as Crimes of Passion.

The double bill comprises The Ruffian on the Stair and The Erpingham Camp, both plays originally commissioned for radio and then we-written and expanded for the theatre.

The Ruffian on the Stair, a lucky title which was chosen, it is said, almost entirely at random, personifies the unknown, the things that are going on in the dark just outside the door.

Living with Joyce in a small flat is Mike, a chancer, always going out to meet some unnamed somebody. Deals within deals. Their relationship is tense, his ideas of the treatment of women archaic, her attitude towards her man perhaps even more so.

To this less than des res comes Wilson, ostensibly looking for a room and answering a non-existent advert. There is no room to let but his attitude is enough to rattle the already hardly stable Joyce.

When she tells Mike of her sinister visitor he tells her she is imagining danger, and when on an occasion he is at home and Wilson turns up, the two men become laddish to the exclusion of Joyce.

It is only when Wilson reveals that his brother, Frank, has been knocked down and killed by Mike that the play becomes really violent and full of suspense. Up to that point, it has been Pinter-esque with some very amusing abstruse language which hits the ear as being very funny, but which the cast largely play against.

Surprisingly for Orton it has a rare reference to homosexuality, not usually explicit in his plays, but always a hovering presence in the subtext. Here, we have the incestuous gay affair of the two brothers, Wilson and his late brother, Frank, and thus giving the reason for the surviving brother to terrorise Mick and Joyce as he seeks an unspoken revenge.

The violent end to the play has a very funny comment on our lives, a stray bullet breaks the goldfish bowl, and Orton chooses the moment to offer the only sympathy he can muster. It is a rich and fitting end to the shallowness Orton loved to depict and at which he was so adept.

The Erpingham Camp, is based on The Bacchae of Euripides. Hardly resistible, one realises, when seen through the naughty eyes of Orton. That all hell could break loose during an orgy is twice as funny by setting it in a holiday camp with the usual orgiastic horrors, 'the winner of the ugliest lady competition is … ' The play becomes a wildly funny comment as well as brilliant coup de theatre.

Don't believe for a moment that the death of Erpingham, supremo of Erpingham Holiday Camps, is a punishment for the sin of Pride as is the death of King Pentheus in the original. It is rather an excuse for yet another opportunity to cock an irreverent snook at the baseless mores of society, in particular the false respect for the dead one hailed as noble, and the lack of the passing of corporate loyalties and beliefs that should have died sometime during the 19th century. Orton found these amusing and despaired of them, but they are, alas, still with us today.

The cast here more than rises to the occasion which is a joy. From the outset when, almost like synchronised swimming, they obey their leader, to the ultimate embarrassment of the concert party they put on for the guests, the play rips along at a giddy pace.

When trouble breaks out, and here that means trouble, with demonstrations, lockouts, starvation and other devised punishments, there is no other way than to eliminate the root cause.

From the padre with his shady pastimes to the owner who refuses to take off his trousers in front of a photograph of the Queen, the characters are brilliantly drawn by Orton and neatly performed by the cast. So good is it, that the longueurs of sitting through the first play evaporate within the first minute of sitting through the second, and you can't get better than that.

Crimes of Passion, a double bill by Joe Orton, Directed by Clare Prenton, Designed by Alex Marker, Costumes by Simon Kenny, Lighting Design by Robert Gooch, Sound Design by Paul Weir, WITH: (The Ruffian on the Stair) Isabel Scott-Plummer (Joyce), Peter Warnock (Mike), Louis Tamone (Wilson), (The Erpingham Camp) Adam Tabraham (Erpingham), Vincent Shiels (Riley), Jane Stanton (Lou), Peter Warnock (Ted), Moira Healy (Eileen), Richard Monk (Kenny), Jonathan Loe (W.E.Harrison), Jamie Honeybourne (Padre), Debden Clarke (Jessie Mason). Produced by Alice de Souza for Galleon Theatre Company at the Greenwich Playhouse, 189 Greenwich High Road, London SE10. Until Saturday February 2 at 7.45pm (Sundays 4.00pm) Tickets 020 8858 9256.

GUIDE TO PICTURES: Main picture shows Peter Warnock in The Ruffian on the Stair, while above, right, Vincent Shiels, Jonathan Loe and Debden Clarke in The Erpingham Camp.

RELATED LINKS: Click here for the Greenwhich Playhouse website...