Although this is purely anecdotal it is probably fair to say that people who go to film and cinema a lot are divided into those who are happily sit through adaptations of a much loved novel and those who emerge onto the pavement afterwards with the comment ‘I would probably have enjoyed that if I didn’t like the book so much’.
So it was for me with Steptoe and Son, adapted from the popular TV series by Kneehigh’s Emma Rice. And the overwhelming question is Why? The original may not be everyone’s cup of tea (stained cup with no saucer and a re-used tea bag) but each script was a fine piece, crafted, filled with comedy and bathos, and delivering belly-laughs to a 29th minute punch line which often whizzed round the corner shouting ‘surprise’ as it told of the love/hate relationship of rag and bone men, Albert and Harold Steptoe.
There was a lot to like if you had no personal baggage to bring to the theatre. Lovers of previous Kneehigh productions such as The Wild Bride or The Red Shoes would have found many similar elements – a small cast, multi-tasking, an intricate and fascinating set, atmospheric and clever lighting, and much physical theatre. And the words were as written by Galton and Simpson in the 1960s and ‘70s, which is a jolly good thing. Unfortunately they were not as performed by actors Harry H Corbett and Wilfred Brambell, who as far as I can see don’t even get a bloomin’ mention in the copious programme notes. And herein lies the problem at the core of the production; Dean Nolan and Mike Shepherd weren’t Harold and Albert Steptoe; roles synonymous with actors who played them for nearly two decades in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and played them beautifully. They also weren’t particular good at comic timing, or indeed heart wrenching performance– and these scripts call for both. It was painful the number of punch lines they missed.
There was horse! Hercules the horse, never a speaking part in the TV shows, but nevertheless the crucial third member of the Steptoe and Son business empire was satisfactorily represented on stage. And mention must go to the talented Kirsty Woodward who played Woman in this production. What woman? Well apparently the everywoman not present in the original but crying out to be voiced or seen. So to problem number two – the breaking of the very important rule of ‘show not tell’. In deconstructing the Galton and Simpson scripts Emma Rice has not enhanced them but merely left us feeling bludgeoned. ‘This is what Harold is feeling now. You know this because we are playing a meaningful song for him to sing along to’ or ‘couldn’t fathom out the poignant gap in the Albert and Harold’s lives? Wonder no longer, we have a token woman (often scantily clad) to embody this in the flesh for you.
Really best not to go if you are fans of the TV show, but if you have never heard the Old Ned theme tune then you will probably have an enjoyable evening.