Such rich source material as Steptoe And Son could have proved to be a blessing or a curse; the complex, sometimes-painful, wonderfully-observed comedy of Galton and Simpson brought to life by Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell on the BBC in the 60s and 70s.
In a move that initially appears to be wise, adaptor and director Emma Rice has eschewed a simple retread of the old scripts – instead injecting a distinct note of theatricality and physicality that theatre company Kneehigh is known for.
The two tatty totters waltz around the stage and often break out into song across the four TV episodes that this production knits together – not to mention their various scraps and tumbling around the stage. And music plays a big part in the play that the production verges on Steptoe And Son – The Musical.
But the curious melancholy in evidence here pushes it more towards a Dennis Potter stage play, the humour either muted or excised altogether. It makes for a strange experience – some of the darker notes of the play, combined with the almost surreal tone and kitsch nods to music and style, come together to make something almost Lynchian.
The core of Steptoe And Son is well represented here – a tragic tale of two people trapped by circumstance, and one another. It’s a trope seen again and again in British sitcoms: Fawlty Towers; Porridge; Only Fools And Horses; Blackadder; Hancock’s Half Hour; Only When I Laugh; Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads.
In all cases – perhaps none more than Steptoe And Son – the light relief of the comedy masks something darker; the comedy and drama of the situation indivisible. A whiff of Beckett always hung over Oil Drum Lane.
Unfortunately Kneehigh’s production seems to forget to include much in the way of laughs; replacing it instead with bemusing theatrical diversions where characters break into song for no narrative reason – and in such a way that the audience is left questioning whether they’re viewing fantasy sequences, a fourth-wall demolition or something deeper into the fairytale quality that the set, music and theatrical quirks hint at.
Meanwhile the wonderful dialogue between Mike Shepherd’s Albert and Dean Nolan’s Harold is frequently punctuated by Kirsty Woodward’s appearances as a variety of largely-unexplained female characters. There’s the suggestion that this production is getting at something here, but it’s not explored and gets lost in the mix.
It all makes for a production that’s too busy trying to be clever while not trying hard enough to be funny, which is a shame because there are wonderful moments of humour, tenderness and pathos.
Kneehigh’s new take on this comedy classic showcases some wonderful performances and an imaginative set. But its more outlandish diversions detract from the magic of those old scripts rather than add to them.