STEPTOE AND SON
Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 23rd October, 2012
I had a problem with this one before going in: I’ve never been much of a fan of the source material, but I hoped director and adaptor Emma Rice would be able to work a bit of Kneehigh magic on me and win me over.
In brief: she couldn’t.
Rice has selected four scripts by Ray Galton & Alan Simpson and has presented them here as a unified piece of theatre. The dialogue seems intact – the setting has been modified. The set consists mainly of a large cube that represents the rag and bone cart by means of which the characters earn a business and also their living quarters and the gates to their junkyard. It is reminiscent of a pageant wagon and reminded me of the brilliant Oddsocks Productions and their ingenious use of such a property.
Transitions between scenes involve the cast of three dancing, singing or lip-synching to popular music of the day. There are also musical sequences in which, through movement and song lyrics, the characters reveal their inner life. These are the best bits. I wanted more of these.
I was pleased to find that the cast do not seek to imitate original actors Harry H Corbett and Wilfred Bramble. This pair has a West Country burr to their voices (Kneehigh is based in Cornwall) and they bring their own interpretations to the characters. Kneehigh veteran Mike Shepherd is the irascible Harold Steptoe, a ‘dirty old man’, lonely and in need of constant attention. Dean Nolan is son Harold, whose aspirations and pretensions are thwarted and punctured at every turn by the machinations and manipulations of his father. This is one of the more hellish situations from sit-com history. The rules of sit-com dictate that by the end of the episode, the status quo will be restored, so that the wrangling and the suffering can continue from scratch next time. On the telly, on a week by week basis, this works very well. In a two-hour stretch in a theatre…not so much. Like watching a DVD box set – soon all the episodes blur into one.
A theatre piece needs to build and grow to keep us interested. The plot needs to develop and the characters need to grow. Here, every 25 minutes, they return to their default setting and nothing has changed. They are the Vladimir and Estragon of the sit-com world. Their existentialist angst is dictated by the situation they are trapped in. Harold is eternally claiming he will move out and start a life of his own while he’s still young. He never does.
The fourth section adds a neat twist to round things off. This time, Albert is threatening to break free by announcing his engagement to a widow. Harold becomes defensive and tries to dissuade the old man. A role reversal that has more to do with desperation than anything else.
Shepherd’s Albert is an energetic moaner, giving the lie to his supposed lack of health. He topples easily to the floor at the merest mention of his war-wounded leg, and clambers up to the roof of the wagon like an energised monkey. Nolan’s Harold also has impressive physicality, and a kind of grace to his movements. He’s a large fellow but he can’t half dance – even performing the splits at one point. The female roles, such as they are, are all performed by Kirsty Woodward in a range of wigs and period outfits. In the end, I found it was the charm of the performers that kept me watching and enjoying, rather than the script or the interpretation.
Like Vladimir and Estragon, these characters do not move. In any sense of the word. I think I was missing the customary sense of enchantment Kneehigh usually brings.