I was recently treated to a free trip to see Steptoe & Son, a collaboration between The West Yorkshire Playhouse, which I became fond of in my Leeds days, and Cornish theatre company Kneehigh. Hammersmith & Fulham has a brilliant scheme by which people who reside or work in the borough are entitled to two free theatre tickets for the first night of any performance at The Lyric Theatre, its cultural hub. All you need do is present a pay slip or a utility bill and a night of visual and cerebral stimulation is yours, costing you no more than a night in with the telly. Not only does this open up the privilege of attending costly “high culture” events to the prols of H & F, but it cleverly serves the double purpose of ensuring a full house of easily pleased punters who can assuage the cast’s nerves on opening night. After all, it’s hard to dislike a play when you haven’t had to part with a penny for the pleasure.
Since I qualify for the latter of the two conditions, I swanned along to the theatre, tickets in hand and that smug “I-know-how-to-get-something-for-free” feeling. Steptoe & Son is an adaptation of the 1960s TV sitcom by the same name, which centred on two rag and bone men living in the fictional Oil Drum Lane of London’s Shepherd’s Bush. West Yorkshire Playhouse unmistakeably stamped its identity on the theatrical version, bestowing the protagonists Harold and Albert with thick Yorkshire accents. The TV series being way before my time and my tickets to the night extremely last-minute, I had come to the play with no preconceptions – aside from my colleague’s comment that plays at the Lyric tend to be “very abstract”. Having ignored this observation and emphatically reassured my boyfriend that we were definitely going to see a comedy, I began to see what my work friend meant early on in the first half.
The action unfolded as bickering between father and son, a wearisome pair whose long and monotonous working life together had multiplied all the usual family frustrations tenfold. The portly Harold (Dean Nolan) was fed up; he could do better without his father and so was off, he’d had it. The trouble was, when he tried to drag off his scrap cart and exit in an impactful strop, the cart was too heavy for him to move. How familiar that was; the triumphantly final declaration of injustice when you storm off from the family dinner table, only to find once upstairs that you’re actually extremely hungry, you’ve left your phone downstairs and you wanted to watch TV. As the frustrating exchanges between father and son continued, documenting Harold’s ambition to leave his father, their work and the limited life that had tied him down for 40 years, a young woman frolicked at the front of the stage, observing the action yet never taking part in it. Once she incarnated a playful little girl, another time an old woman performing domestic chores; the ghost of the pair’s dead mother and wife. Every 15 minutes or so, this evidently symbolic figure ambled to a gramophone at the front of the stage and put on a record; Cliff Richard, The Rolling Stones, Elvis, Paul McCartney. The sole three cast members then proceeded to dance in synchronisation to whichever song it was, in methodical, simplistic steps and incongruously serious facial expressions. Song over, the endless tug of war between father and son would resume; the pair pushing and pulling between the desire to break free versus the pressure for things to stay the same as always.
Steptoe & Son centres on very familiar personality traits – Harold longs for change yet lacks the conviction to execute it, while Albert (Mike Shepherd) is clingy and fears being left alone by his son. The issues between parent and child will resonate with many, as the play highlights the responsibility we feel towards our parents in their old age, while acknowledging the negative impact this may have on our own dreams and individual needs. If in the first half the action was slow and abstract, in the second the characters really began to mature, with the plot taking some surprising and amusing turns. Although this play doesn’t deliver constant laughs, there are some golden comedy moments, notably from Albert’s side splitting rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, and my personal favourite line; “A prune may be old, but that don’t mean it ain’t tasty.” Music is integral to this performance, with the intermittent songs and dances reinforcing the monotonous rhythm of Harold & Albert’s daily grind, whilst also introducing an all-important element of comedy.
It isn’t immediately clear what the role of this silent, omnipresent female character is, which leaves a nagging unanswered question in your mind in the way that all good film and theatre should. I think that this female represents everything that Harold & Albert lack; femininity, intrigue, love, escapism and freedom. The opportunity for change that dangles itself flirtatiously in front of both men but which their suffocating yet tender relationship prevents either of them from grasping. Steptoe & Son discusses themes of loyalty, obligation, frustration and love that are inherent in all family life, through a familiar and entertaining pair of characters that are as loveable as their television predecessors. While it won’t be the funniest thing you’ve seen, this play blends an intriguing mix of humour and melancholy that gives welcome cause for reflection on universally important themes, while standing confidently independent from its TV counterpart.
Steptoe & Son continues until Sat 6th April. See more info here.