Theatre | Steptoe and Son
A theatrical re-make of the famous British Sitcom comes to the West Yorkshire Playhouse, provoking mixed reviews from our writers.
Kneehigh Production Company have received five star reviews from The Times, and, reaching their 30th year in 2012, Kneehigh has many theatre productions to celebrate – unfortunately, Steptoe and Son is not one of these.
What is most disruptive about this adaptation of the TV classic is its dependence on a sixties soundtrack. Whilst initially successful in establishing the decade, it brought little else to the piece. The uncomfortable and somewhat meaningless displays of dance interrupt the momentum of the dialogue. As a result, the play moves at a slow pace making it difficult for the audience to engage with the action.
Despite structural faults, the play does have many redeeming qualities. The original television series was centred on the inter-generational conflict between father and son and the play executes this to great effect. Director Emma Rice presents a painful depiction of the struggle a widower has letting go of his only son, supported by the dark and bleak set lit mainly by lamps scattered downstage and the ominous presence of the moon. Bound together by loneliness and habit, the audience is compelled to respond to the characters’ desperation to lead separate lives. This dependence is epitomised in the scene where they dress for dinner. Set to Elvis Presley’s ‘You were always on my Mind’, this simple act of buttoning one another’s shirt symbolises the bridging of a generational gap and the love story between parent and child.
Unfortunately, this scene stood solitary in its power to speak to the audience, as most other poignant moments were continuously tainted by needless comedy. The light hearted humour taken from the television series overshadows some of the touching moments; the captivating relationship was strong enough to succeed on its own. Hanging in the balance between comedy and tradegy the play therefore fails to succeed as either.
As a play, Steptoe and Son soared above my expectations. Dean Nolan and Mike Shepherd play Harold and Albert Steptoe to perfection. Their portrayal of a father and son hopelessly dependent upon each other is both poignant and believable, sprinkled with a liberal dose of musical comedy.
Nolan in particular gives a wholehearted, energetic performance as a trapped Harold Steptoe desperate to grasp a life quickly slipping away from him. The effect is quite frankly absorbing. Even his body and hair are appropriated to the arsenal of props he draws on to support his performance. Despite his ample girth he is a surprisingly nimble dancer, even managing the splits during one of the impromptu dance interludes that light up the piece. His hair he periodically slicks back each time resolves for the last time to ‘take that offer’ and break free from his lonely and manipulative old man.
Crisp timing and ripe slapstick comedy seal the performance among the finest West Yorkshire Playhouse has ever hosted. However this is only to be expected; having opened the run on 18th September the actors have had ample time to tighten up their work. The overall tone and mood are subject to frequent and sudden modulations; one moment Harold has his father pinned to the ground in a violent scuffle, only to swing round and declare that he’s sorry ‘only you were gettin’ on my wick a bit’, amiable as ever. The comedy is almost always derived from this incongruity, which makes for a somewhat surreal viewing experience, but one not entirely unpleasant.
Photos: Steve Tanner