The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyric Hammersmith Spring 2013
What Kneehigh Theatre Company excel at is magic. Not simply pulling things out of hats (though they’re partial to a little of that), but instilling the audience with a sense of childish delight.
They are architects of wonder and they specialise in staging an original source material in a way that retains its essence, while still creating something that is absolutely theirs.
Steptoe and Son is quintessential Kneehigh.
Using four episodes from the original series as a base – three from its 1960s and one from its 1970s run – Emma Rice gives us a version of both Steptoe (Mike Shepherd as father Albert, the ‘dirty old man’) and Son (Dean Nolan, excellent as browbeaten son Harold) that is immediately recognisable.
These are iconic characters, treated with the appropriate respect and love, but the production still manages to feel like something fresh.
The old sitcom scripts may be in place, but they do not feel like sitcom scripts any more – staged, the laughs come in very different places, and the sheer bleakness of the situation feels inescapable.
Harold, desperate to see the outside world and to have a life of his own, really is trapped by his miserable curmudgeon of a father, and Shepherd and Nolan have a wonderful chemistry that shifts easily from comedy to pathos.
Rice, who directs her own adaptation, also gives us some clever treatment of the presentment of women: she highlights the masculine seclusion of Albert and Harold’s lives together by having Kirsty Woodward on stage almost constantly, watching them like a kind of guardian angel.
In keeping with their off-hand dismissal of all women as ‘birds’, Woodward plays every single female character in the production, which range from a sweet portrayal of Albert’s late wife, who drifts around the stage unseen and much missed, to the leopard skin-clothed titular character of the episode that closes the first half – ‘The Bird’.
Clearly, Harold and Albert, though both capable of love, tend to see all women as interchangeable – and Woodward’s presence is also a nice reminder of the outside world, which Harold longs for but Albert feels desperately threatened by.
He cannot bear the thought of it taking his son from him, but he is incapable of keeping him there with kindness rather than manipulation.
It is a flawed adaptation at times, with a second half that seems largely to re-tread the same ground as the first, and seeing as two of the four episode adaptations (‘The Bird’ and ‘Two’s Company’) are more successful than their fellows, it could perhaps do with being half the length.
Nonetheless, with an unbelievably beautiful set design by Neil Murray and packed full of circus-influenced minor acrobatics, and dance, and music, and imagination, this is a night of theatrical joy of the kind you can only get from Kneehigh. Accept no substitutes.
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Review - Steptoe and Son - Lyric Hammersmith 2013