Desperate to leave the family business, find “a bird” and make his mark on the world, Harold is constantly thwarted; by his aging father, his sense of obligation, and his own limitations.
This is the central source of conflict, as Harold appeases his failures by striking out at the old man, who, in turn, is desperate to keep his thirty-something son under his thumb and so avoid his encroaching loneliness.
The main problem with the set-up is that it’s hard to make true vitriol funny, as there’s no counterpoint to the nastiness. While the source material made no such attempt to be warm and fuzzy, and was more tragic than comedic, unfortunately, Rice’s stage version tries too hard; using misguided musical interludes and gimmicks in an attempt to jolly-up the desperations and disappointments of Albert and Harold.
While the audience was appreciative of the broad laughs rung out of the material by the hardworking lead actors, Dean Nolan as Harold and Mike Shepherd as Albert, because the story is told in short episodic vignettes, the dramatic flow suffers.
In many ways, it would have been more effective, and bolder, to isolate the characters in one setting over the course of a couple of hours and let the drama play out between them in real time.
In terms of staging, once again the Playhouse delivers, with Neil Murray’s ingenious and adaptable rag and bone cart providing the main setting. Broadly following the sitcom structure, the play is divided into four segments and runs for around two hours, including an interval.
Casting, however, is curious, with Nolan and Shepherd putting a unique twist on the iconic roles forever associated with Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett. To their credit, their performances wisely avoid any hint of impersonation. Rounding out the three-person cast is Kirsty Woodward in multiple roles as the real, and longed-for, women in Albert and Harold’s lives.
Overall, it’s hard to know what to make of Steptoe & Son, as it’s neither one thing nor the other. The tone is comedic, but the characters unsympathetic and often unlikable, with too many built-in distractions preventing real insight into their lives. As a result, it’s hard to know whether to root for Harold, or feel both he and Albert got exactly what they deserved. Each other.
Steptoe & Son is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 13 October 2012. For tickets, contact the box office on 0113 2137700, or visit www.wyp.org.uk. The play then tours to other venues in the UK. For details, visit www.kneehigh.co.uk.