The Theatreguide.London Review
Steptoe & Son
Comedy Theatre Spring 2006
...In Murder at Oil Drum Lane, to give the complete title.
You might need to be reminded that Steptoe & Son was a popular British sitcom of the 1960s and 1970s about a pair of rag-and-bone men.
The son, played by Harry H. Corbett, kept trying to lead a normal life (or at least meet girls), repeatedly foiled by his wily and selfish father (Wilfrid Brambell, who played Paul's grandfather in A Hard Day's Night).
Americans might remember the somewhat sanitised US version, Sanford and Son, starring Redd Foxx.
Now one of the original writers, Ray Galton, has joined with veteran comedy writer John Antrobus to bring the characters to the stage, in a combination prequel-sequel to the series.
Thirty years ago, we're told, the son finally snapped and killed his father, and has been on the run ever since.
Returning incognito to visit the old junkyard (ironically now a National Trust tourist attraction, perhaps the best single joke in the whole show) he finds his father's ghost, leading to a string of flashbacks of the various indignities he suffered at the old man's hands.
So the show is essentially a string of sketches - in the 1930s father tries to sell the boy to the Hitler Youth in return for a German war pension; in the 1940s he locks him in the cellar for four years to keep him out of the war; thereafter he repeatedly embarrasses or scares away every girl the son brings home, and so on.
It has to be said that the sketches are uniformly unfunny, with gags that are telegraphed long in advance. But there is undeniable comic power in the reappearance of familiar tropes, be they catch phrases -'You dirty old man!' - or bits of shtick - the father's sly half-smile when about to confess to some dastardly trick.
Though the sketches are all new, they follow conventional formats and thus seem familiar - as one began, the man behind me exclaimed 'Oh, I remember this one.'
Harry Dickman and Jake Nightingale, as father and son, have the unenviable job of acting enough like the originals to keep fans happy and still offering something of themselves, Nightingale being marginally more successful. The secondary cast have been directed by Roger Smith to play their walk-ons (various girlfriends, etc.) as extreme cartoons just barely this side of bad acting.
This one is strictly for the nostalgic, who would probably be better served by spending their ticket money on the DVD boxed sets of the original shows.
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