Galton and Simpson are often referred to as the founding fathers of television sitcom. With Masters of Comedy such as Tony Hancock, Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Spike Milligan and Frankie Howerd under their belt, the comedy writing industry have a lot to thank Ray and Alan for.
Steptoe and Son had its origins in a one off comedy written for TV. Eight series later, it became one of the BBC’s greatest successes. Here, Emma Rice from Kneehigh revisits the original scripts and has produced a stage version of the classic show.
We are told in the programme notes that Rice has used four episodes that act as a “spine or map” for the production. What quickly becomes clear is that rather than being a map, it dictates the framework and turns out to be four episodes adapted for the stage rather than one story or an arc for the characters.
This framework presents problems. Rice has chosen four memorable and classic episodes that in the structure of the series proved to be significant landmarks. Here, they are stand alone and as such have neither significance nor purpose. We don’t have time to recognize their Beckett-esque qualities: Harold’s lifelong desire to break out that is only hampered by his loyalty to his father. Old Man Steptoe’s mischief and hypochondriac qualities fail to make an impact as they come from nowhere rather than a deep insecurity and desire for company.
The cast have a clear focus and desire to make the roles their own. Mike Shepard as Albert is, to steal another Wilfred Bramble reference, very clean. He lacks Brambles ability to disgust. When Harry H Corbett’s Harold calls him a dirty old man, you understand why. Here he’s just a little too nice and often charming.
Dean Nolan’s Harold is a million miles away from Corbett. There is something of the Hamlet in the TV Son. Malcontent, ambitious and doomed, Corbett was the classic tragic clown. Nolan misses this and falls back on relying on his size to create comedy.
Kirsty Woodward’s Woman is an altogether mysterious affair. The hope is that she represents women from different backgrounds and different ages. The truth of the matter is, the episodes that were chosen briefly featured a female character therefore one was needed for those moments. The rest of the time, her presence feels token and often distracting.
Rice clearly has a fondness for the show and the characters. The fun found in the setting of a table for date night and more touching moments like dressing each other to an Elvis Presley track are highlights. The structure however hampers the end result. With very little purpose to the first half and the bulk of the laughs coming in the second, whether we’ve outgrown the rag and bone man or it doesn’t actually translate to the stage, Kneehigh’s Steptoe and Son misses its working class origins in favour of a safer and more conservative audience.