Cast: Mike Shepherd, Dean Nolan, Kirsty Woodward.
Director: Emma Rice
Writer: Emma Rice (Book), Ray Galton and Alan Simpson
Running Time: 120 minutes
Theatre: The West Yorkshire Playhouse
In 1962 Steptoe and Son arrived on television screens and became an institution. Originally featured as a one-off episode in Galton and Simpson’s Comedy Playhouse, several series followed over two decades, spawning movies and worldwide theatrical tours. Fifty years on, Kneehigh have brought a renewed adaptation of Steptoe and Son to the West Yorkshire Playhouse, adapting four classic episodes into a full-length show.
Steptoe and Son follows the plight of rag and bone man Albert Steptoe and his long-suffering son Harold as they try to scrape together a living. It is the 1960s, a time of liberal politics, free love and high aspirations. As Harold sees the world changing around him, he revaluates his existence, making the difficult decision between caring for his father or his own future.
From the outset it is clear that Kneehigh have reimagined Steptoe and Son from the page up, without too much influence from the television product. As such, it is somewhat jarring to see the famous duo re-evaluated with West Country accents and behaving in a heightened dramatic state. The attempt to entirely dislocate the performances from what could easily be an impression is admirable, but unfortunately doesn’t quite work with the original material as written. Somehow, the flickering moments of pathos which made the Steptoe scripts so earthy have been overly laboured with a dramatic intensity, and many of the gags are lost in the heightened tension. The jokes are in there, but they’re often asides to the conflict which takes precedence. The result is an uncanny Steptoe and Son, with less levity and more expressive emotion.
As a two-handed show, Mike Shepherd’s Albert to Dean Nolan’s Son work extremely well, with a chemistry which is believable despite the great disparity in physicality. Nolan brings a wholly original physical humour to Harold whilst Shepherd’s sinewy study of old age has an honest sensitivity. The pair are joined by Kirsty Woodward, who fulfils the role of the many women who pass through Albert and Harold’s shambolic lives, presenting a myriad of female stereotypes from all the decades. Woodward’s engaging performance serves to highlight the role and position of women at the time the scripts were written and acts as an interesting evaluation on how femininity is presented in a male-dominated sphere.
Steptoe and Son is ingeniously realised on stage within a beautiful tinderbox set designed by Neil Murray, doubling as a lounge, cart and scrapyard gates. Sympathetically lit, the set is an evocation of the 1960s, complete with a record player which bookends scenes with hits of the period. Music itself plays a large part in the show and one moment, where Albert and Harold tenderly dress each other to the entirety of Always on My Mind, is beautifully touching. It is a shame that there is almost an over-reliance of tonal music in other scenes, which overbears and flattens the subtle fluctuation of drama and humour which is so prevalent in Galton and Simpson’s dialogue. Sometimes, less is more.
As a show in its own right, Steptoe and Son is entertaining and engaging. Those with no prior knowledge of its heritage will find much to enjoy. Others who are familiar with the original incarnation may draw inevitable comparisons, some unfavourable and justified. Well-meant and intentionally different, this is a Steptoe and Son unlike any seen before and is a fascinating reappraisal of a much-loved classic.
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