Trapped in a junkyard world by an eternal dance of doom

Mike Shepherd as Albert and Dean Nolan as Harold in Steptoe and Son
Mike Shepherd as Albert and Dean Nolan as Harold in Steptoe and Son

Steptoe and Son: Lighthouse, Poole

Anyone who lived through the sixties will have absorbed something of Steptoe and Son into their entertainment DNA. You mess with that kind of thing at your peril.

Creating an intriguing and affectionate adaptation of the classic Ray Galton and Alan Simpson sitcom was a brave move by director Emma Rice. It was also a clever move because it works rather well. I know because I went to see it at Lighthouse in Poole last night.

One of the main strengths of this co-production from long-time collaborators Kneehigh and West Yorkshire Playhouse is that it steers well clear of imitation. Scheming and manipulative rag and bone man Albert Steptoe and his dreamer of a son Harold played here by Mike Shepherd and Dean Nolan are significantly different from the hapless pair as portrayed by Wilfred Brambell and Harry H. Corbett on BBC TV.

The cor blimey Londoners from Oil Drum Lane, Shepherds Bush, now have a light West Country brogue and an indeterminate geographical location. No matter. You still get two fine actors who combine striking physical performance and adept stagecraft to deliver a comedy drama that plumbs the very essence of the original show. With Kirsty Woodward as mother, lover, doctor, dancer and occasional object of passing fantasies –  Rice has used four original Galton and Simpson scripts to explore the desperate plight of the Steptoes.

An impressive set and a musical backdrop that takes in, among others, Elvis, Cliff Richard and the Rolling Stones marks both their passage through time and the increasing hopelessness of their situation, Albert and Harold – scarred by war and battered by circumstance – are locked in a dance of doom, trapped in their junkyard world forever.

The result is a strange mix of tragedy and comedy. As Emma Rice herself commented after reading the original Galton and Simpson scripts: “The work is deeper, darker and more intricate than I’d ever realized, watching as a child.”

I had the privilege of discussing this production with Galton and Simpson themselves a few months back. They admitted they were excited at the prospect of Albert and Harold getting a new theatrical outing. Rice and Kneehigh were, they said, worthy temporary custodians of the Steptoe legacy.

The pair, now 82 and 83, respectively still seem a little bewildered at their good fortune when they talk of the chapter of accidents that originally brought Steptoe to the screen more than  50 years ago.

They had just split from Tony Hancock and the BBC, horrified at the prospect of losing their comedy dream team, came calling cap in hand.  “It was extraordinary,” recalled Galton.  “Basically the guy in charge of humour told us:  ‘You can  do what you like, write what you like, cast who you like, you can even be in it if you want. Just write something new for us.’  We thought ‘Hello, he’s gone bonkers!’  Anyway, we started working on this Comedy Playhouse piece The Offer about two rag and bone men.”

Rather than use comedy actors, the piece starred Shakespearian actor and exponent of experimental theatre Harry H. Corbett and jobbing character actor Wifred Brambell. It worked a treat and the BBC instantly offered Galton and Simpson the chance to turn The Offer into a series.

Tired and jaded after years of scripting Hancock and others, the pair tried to turn the BBC’s proposition down. “We really didn’t want to do a series,” said Galton. “We said no for six months and eventually we just ran out of excuses. To be honest we weren’t particularly worried because we reckoned that if we asked Harry and Wilfred – who were straight actors – if they’d be in it, they’d certainly say no. We couldn’t have been more wrong. They jumped at it.”

Ironically the comedy gold that was Steptoe and Son would lead to bitterness and misery for Corbett and Brambell who gradually came to loathe each other. Brambell was a curmudgeonly gay alcoholic desperately trying to hide his sexuality from the public. While Corbett was an unhappy womaniser trapped by his own success and frustrated by a professional partner who would frequently forget his lines after drowning his sorrows with too much gin. They ended up as dependent on each other as Albert and Harold but off stage or off set could barely bring themselves to speak to each other.

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