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Steptoe and Son

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Even people who weren't around when the sitcom Steptoe and Son by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson aired on BBC television between 1962 and 1974 will know certain things: it was in black and white, it was about a father and son locked in a love/hate relationship in a filthy London scrap yard, and it was very, very funny.

Uncowed by its pedigree and reputation, Kneehigh's director Emma Rice, in association with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, has devised this affectionate tribute show that transcends its own origins and becomes something different: a music hall play of dreams and accusation discreetly knitted from four of the original scripts.

Mike Shepherd, dapper and finical, as grumpy old Albert, and Dean Nolan, huge, demonstrative and deliriously light on his feet, as his middle-aged son, Harold, waste no time imitating Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H Corbett (one of Joan Littlewood's great stars), who were far nastier and more ferocious.

For a start, they are both Cornishmen, and they have softened all edges in the nostalgic glow of the production, which is heralded by Cliff Richard's "The Young Ones" and quotes the Rolling Stones and Dusty Springfield en route to a hilarious Perry Mason fantasy sketch.

Perry Mason is on the box as Harold prepares to go out and meet "a bird," although these petty-minded men are much better off without having any women round here. Two things, apart from their poverty, marked Steptoe and Son: the experience of soldiery (Albert in the War, Harold in National Service), and the absence of women.

Rice therefore provides a stage everywoman in the lissom shape of Kirsty Woodward, who embodies all the mother and girlfriend shadowy types as well as adding a new dimension to the Beckettian stasis of the two men.

The four episodes that form what Rice calls the show's map, or spine, exist in a snapshot format, devoid of any chronological consistency; this sharpens the sense of just one thing happening after another. And the comic dialogue shines like coins on a dung heap: why go to Greece, instead of Bognor, for a holiday? Greece is falling to bits. That's the Acropolis. Are there four horsemen on the Acropolis?

Albert and Harold, like Beckett's tramps, aren't really going anywhere. They are stuck in the yard and stuck with each other. And that's the beauty of the writing, and the tragedy of their situation. Do you ever see anything as good on television today? It makes great theatre.


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