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Steptoe and Son – Oxford Playhouse

Writers: Ray Galton and Alan Simpson

Adaptor and Director: Emma Rice

Reviewer: Mary Tapper


An intriguing combination. Take one iconic sitcom from the 60s and 70s featuring the toxic, dysfunctional relationship between a father and son running a scrap yard, and add to the mix Kneehigh Theatre with their dark, visually arresting style of storytelling and what do we get? Hit or miss?

Steptoe and Son was a hugely successful sitcom, broadcast by the BBC in the 60s and 70s, written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. It tells the story of Albert, an old man running a junkyard business with his son Harold, who is nearing middle age. Albert is desperate to keep his son by his side to make his life easier, while Harold dreams of escaping, and is always cooking up schemes to better himself and move on. The sitcom has quite a dark feel to it, as the love-hate relationship between the two is constantly explored, but at the end of the day the viewer is always left in no doubt that the pair are effectively bound together and will remain so.

So how do Kneehigh update and revisit the themes of the show? There are several aspects of the production that are excellent. The staging is visually pleasing with a huge box that opens out to reveal a rather homely front room and, with props spread around the stage, we are soon in a veritable junkyard! A bed perched at a crazy angle on top of the box provides a bedroom, complete with lampshade and a skeleton to decorate the room. Kneehigh move fluidly around the stage creating movement in a beautifully lit area, a huge moon looking down on proceedings. Sound is also creative with records played on a turntable at the start of a scene morphing into more general music, helping to create a rather creepy atmosphere.

But here’s the rub: I’m not quite sure what they are trying to do. In recreating four episodes, dialogue and all, with small snatches of Kneehigh magic spread about the place, the whole thing fails to hang together. It also fails to provide a production surreal enough to be different from the original TV series. I am being harsh but neither of the main actors lives up to the comic timing of their counterparts in the original. They also fail to evoke any real touches of pathos or move us with their plight. The women seem incidental to proceedings, adding no great revelations, and their treatment here seems to add nothing new to the psychology of the piece. Mike Shepherd as Albert seems a good decade too young, Dean Nolan as Harold not quite debonair enough. If you are going to do Steptoe and Son the humour and the small touches have to be spot on – otherwise go the whole hog and do something completely different, something so mad that it cannot be compared and only has the heart of the story left.

The show is entertaining in parts and gains some momentum towards the end. It is at its strongest when Kneehigh are doing what they do best – telling the story through actions rather than words. When Albert and Harold dress piece by piece in the last scene we sit patiently and observe the small movements. When Harold sings or dances the crowd are ready to enjoy and want more. It is therefore disappointing when the action moves back to static sitcom and to the many words that have been more effectively delivered elsewhere in our memories.

The evening meanders along, with good moments and not so good, leaving this reviewer frustrated by the lack of ambition throughout the piece. The audience, filled mostly with young people, unhampered with memories of the original, enjoy the evening but I for one wish Kneehigh had had the courage to produce something extraordinary – they are capable of so much more.

Runs until 20th October


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One comment

  1. I agree with the reviewer’s comments to a point. However, suggesting that there were good moments is stretching a point – or rather there may indeed have been some later, as suggested, only I didn’t last that long. The first half of this awful production was as much as I could bear!
    There was no sign of the bonds that held the two men together, the dialogue was hopelessly lacking in any punch and humour, and the two principals were wholly miscast.
    I agree with the reviewer that the woman, in her various guises, added nothing at all, and one was left unsure if the point of this show was comedy, tragi-comedy or simply ineffable sadness. I was certainly sad that I had parted with some £20 to endure this show.
    The audience laughed loudest at an overweight man able to do the splits – a laudable feat perhaps, but wholly unrelated to the character of Albert Steptoe, and more in keeping with the ghastly slapstick comedy we endured as TV viewers in an era where Steptoe was such a revelation precisely because it avoided such obvious cheap laughs.
    Harold is undoubtedly a tragi-comic figure, in the exact mould of Tony Hancock. Harry H Corbett, were he still with us, would weep at this mockery.