tue 12/11/2019

Steptoe and Son, Lyric Hammersmith | reviews, news & interviews

Steptoe and Son, Lyric Hammersmith

Steptoe and Son, Lyric Hammersmith

Kneehigh's adaptation of a sitcom classic gets the balance between pathos and laughs just right

A not so gurning Mike Shepherd as Albert and a physically agile Dean Nolan as HaroldPhoto: Steve Tanner

What’s this? Harold and Albert turfed out of their old stamping ground of Shepherd’s Bush and turned into West Country natives? Any change to a cherished sitcom comes at the theatre director’s peril, but a change of accent? Somehow, this sounds a jarring note more dissonant than any changes to script or action, though, in fact, Emma Rice’s adaptation has remained remarkably faithful to Galton and Simpson’s original 1962 pilot, as well as to three later episodes. These four episodes form the basis of Kneehigh’s production which premiered in Cornwall last year, where the company is based. It’s come to London via  Leeds Yorkshire Playhouse, who co-produce.

Actually, there’s one more significant change, and since it acts as a good device to signify the rolling years while time stands still for father and son, it’s a thoroughly welcome one. This play is not a two-hander. Kirsty Woodward (pictured below in just one of her many incarnations), billed as The Woman, is cast variously as Albert’s long-deceased wife, a male GP, and an old girlfriend of Harold’s. Less specifically, through costume changes and choices of pop hits– from Cliff Richard’s "The Young Ones" right through to The Bay City Rollers’ "Bye Bye Baby" – the female presence acts as a window through which the rolling-by world is viewed. Howard and Albert get a glimpse out of this window, and an occasional enticing taste, but are trapped by class, circumstance and, of course, co-dependency.

The female presence acts as a window through which the rolling-by world is viewed

None of this sounds promising as a comedy, but there are plenty of laughs, though its critical reception on its Leeds’ outing found it far too heavy on the pathos. Perhaps a decision was made to ramp up the comedy, and laughs come mainly through physical comedy: mixing the drama with flights of fantasy, Harold, Albert and The Woman, do a number of very funny dance routines. Dean Nolan (Harold) moves his considerable heft with impressive nimbleness – even, on one occasion, doing the splits – while the most arresting fantasy sequence is when Harold and Albert (a less gurning and slighter fresher-faced Mike Shepherd), with Woodward’s elderly, tufty-haired male GP, mime to Louis Armstrong’s version of "Motherless Child". It’s funny, but it also makes the hairs stand on the back of the neck. But though music is central to the play, we don’t get to hear a variation of Ron Grainer’s distinctive title soundtrack till the very end –  it's been like waiting for the return of a dear old friend.

Kirsty Woodward in just one of her incarnations as The WomanOf course, Harry H Corbett is irreplaceable. Nolan’s Harold has a harder edge, and Corbett’s daft-as-a-brush, lost-boy delivery becomes simple frustration in the mouth of Nolan. But perhaps stretching the comparison is unfair. Television immortalises actors in one role, and that role was Corbett’s. And no one could deliver the line “You dirty old man” quite like he did. Here it’s like waiting for Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” moment, or perhaps more like Lady Bracknell’s “handbag”, since that role was completely defined on film by Edith Evans.

There’s a lot that’s extremely winning about this production. Most important of all, I think it gets the tricky balance between pathos and laughter right. It also captures a wonderful period feel. Neil Murray’s simple yet imaginative set is dominated by the rag ’n’ bone cart, while a huge suspended disc is used to variously project an image of the full moon, a clock and the sky. In this dim, claustrophobic set-up, we get a lot of the moon and little of the sky. Harold dreams of reaching for that elusive sky, but just what would he do without crafty old Albert to keep him in his place? This is a production that reminds you that Galton and Simpson really were the Beckett of sitcoms writers. And fortunately Rice keeps largely to their script.

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A production that reminds you that Galton and Simpson really were the Beckett of sitcom writers

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