It’s not difficult to see why Emma Rice – joint artistic director of the Cornwall-based Kneehigh, one of our most visionary and playful theatre companies – was drawn to ‘Steptoe and Son’.
Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s hugely popular TV comedy about a rag-and-bone man and his hapless son is underpinned by a seam of violence and frustration. Darkness lurks beneath the canned laughter – and it is exactly this permeable line between humour and pain that Kneehigh make it their business to explore.
Rice’s stage adaptation of ‘Steptoe’ – drawing on four episodes of the show, and produced to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the series’ premiere – is therefore marked by an elegiac feel. We get knockabout physical comedy in the early scenes: Albert (Mike Shepherd) can’t seem to stop falling over, and he and Harold (Dean Nolan) break out into brief dance sequences with a mysterious, predominantly silent Woman (Kirsty Woodward).
The Woman’s choric presence – while Albert and Harold bicker, she listens to Cliff Richard records, or mixes cocktails in a Playboy bunny suit – is presumably meant to emphasise the two men’s isolation, both from the presence of women, and from a fully lived life.
But for much of the show, her presence is faintly baffling; as, indeed, is the relationship between Albert and Harold – at least for someone who has never watched ‘Steptoe and Son’. Diehard fans of the series may find much to enjoy here – but I’d have liked to see Kneehigh apply more of their prodigious talent for storytelling to characters whom a large portion of today’s audiences won’t already know. Laura Barnett