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March 21, 2013 5:56 pm
Seven years ago a new Steptoe & Son story, Murder at Oil Drum Lane, was staged in the West End to muted reaction. Emma Rice of Kneehigh has had much greater success in adapting a clutch of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s scripts from the original BBC television sitcom and crafting them into an evening that catches the minor-key delights of the original.
Steptoe & Son (adapted for the US as Sanford & Son) was always only a hair’s breadth more funny than it was poignant. The pair of rag-and-bone men, constantly struggling against each other yet in the end dedicated to their stifling coupledom, engaged their audience through sympathetic pity as much as comedy. In this respect – and in that the 1962-74 comedy series constitutes one of the great British popular-culture narratives of the past half-century – this places the Steptoes firmly in Kneehigh territory of classic stories retold with a blend of humour and pathos.
Rice and designer Neil Murray fold the action out from a totters’ cart-cum-gypsy caravan containing the Steptoes’ derelict furniture (the prized comfy chair is a ripped-out car seat), and the time periods of the various episodes (three from 1962, including the original pilot, “The Offer”, and one from 1970) and the flashbacks within them are astutely set by use of popular songs ranging from “The Way You Look Tonight” to “Paint It, Black”.
Most daringly, the pair’s distinctive London accents (London-Irish in father Albert’s case) are dropped in favour of Kneehigh’s own West Country. This is a canny move: far from feeling like a deficiency, it accustoms us to approaching the characters on their own terms here and now. Dean Nolan is a foot higher and two feet wider than Harry H. Corbett, but his Harold is no less affecting when we see his dreams of romantic success, or simply of getting a holiday on his own, dashed. Mike Shepherd bears a slight facial resemblance to Wilfrid Brambell but is sprightlier and less (deliberately) whiny. Kirsty Woodward plays everyone else in the episodes as well as the framing sequences, at one point performing a striptease to transform from a middle-aged male doctor into a young female sunbather. It all makes for a comparatively slight evening, but an appealing and an oddly heartwarming one.
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