The wonderful Kneehigh Theatre Company is back in Bristol, and this time with a reworking of the classic TV series Steptoe & Son: the 1960s sitcom showing the daily grind of a father and son working in the dying rag and bone business.
However, when Kneehigh is in action things are never as straightforward as they seem. Although Steptoe & Son is relatively faithful to the original TV series and characters, the biggest change here is the addition of a third character – The Woman (played by Kirsty Woodward) who adopts several personas to supplement the on-stage friction between Albert (Mike Shepherd) and Harold (Dean Nolan). The Woman is seen and unseen: sometimes she’s the third wheel in a storyline and has a few lines, but most times she’s a sylph on the outside looking in.
For this production, the stage play follows the TV production in that it is episodic – we have four short-ish stories across the evening, all of which are clearly demarked by title cards/sheets and musical interludes. And of course, this being Kneehigh, music plays an integral part to the performance. Bookended with a record player motif controlled by The Woman (whose tastes flit from Cliff Richard to Elvis Presley to reflect the changing years), the show is supplemented with new arrangements of classics such as You Don’t Own Me and It’s Over (overseen by musical director Jim Henson), and some charming dance routines involving the whole cast – all of which generate laughs from the audience.
Of course, while Steptoe & Son has plenty of humour, it is ultimately a sad story of two lonely and unhappy men who rub each other up the wrong way, while also being lovingly dependent on each other for survival. And the sense of the characters’ failures and unhappiness permeates the audience at the Old Vic, particularly in the closing scene.
Several years ago I saw the play Steptoe & Son: A Murder At Oil Drum Lane in London, which was a very direct reinterpretation of the TV show, complete with actors who looked and sounded exactly like their TV counterparts. Where the Kneehigh production succeeds over its predecessor is that the actors are not trying to be Harry H Corbett or Wilfrid Brambell, but instead put their own spin on the characters, which means the show has a much more fresh feel. Well, as fresh as you’re going to get in a faded rag and bone merchants!
Steptoe & Son is at the Bristol Old Vic until 9 February. Click here for more information and to check ticket availability.