I am comfortably too young to have formed a strong attachment to the classic Steptoe and Son, first of radio and then of television fame, at their first outing, but from my childhood I have vivid memories of listening to the iconic cadences of Harry H. Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell wafting out from the radio. The show revolved around Albert and Harold Steptoe, father and son rag and bone men, the former haggard and weary, the latter watching his years drain away as his frequently self-publicised “untapped-potential” goes to waste in the backstreets of Shepherds Bush. I was too young to get the majority of the jokes, not to mention the subtler inferences and witty references, but there was something absolutely perfect about Harry H. Corbett’s denouncement of his father, at least once an episode, as “you dirty *pause* old *pause* man”, and the lilting, plaintive tone with which Wilfrid Brambell called “Oh ‘Arold!” after his son. It is as a result of this idyllic recollection that I hold Steptoe and Son up on some sort of untouchable pedestal from my childhood, alongside jumping on my bed, accompanying my dad to the corner shop on a Saturday morning to buy him papers and me and my sister pick’n’mix sweets, and minimilk icelollies. If I ever revisit such experiences, they necessarily fall short of the perceived perfection associated with them.
Unfortunately the same could be said of Kneehigh’s production of Steptoe and Son. The show consisted of 4 short performances, in keeping with the episodic format of the classic version, and each one touched on central themes of the father-son relationship that underpins the whole drama. The Offer touches on the bittersweet bond between father and son, as Harold bemoans his lot in life, and threatens to leave the rag and bone business. This production admirably captures the underlying tension and resentment present in the father-son relationship, which the more obvious humour and light-hearted joking rests upon quite successfully. The drama was broken up throughout the show by brief dance numbers from the trio of actors, which worked well both in lightening the tone and displaying the three impressive pirouetting performers. The Bird centres on Harold’s chronic lack of success in his romantic life, and Albert’s efforts to undermine and hold him back for his own gain. Mike Shepherd’s Albert almost succeeded in relaying the dichotomy of his actions – acutely selfish and painfully tragic in equal measure – but it fell just short of what I, in my nostalgic excitement, was expecting.
In the second half, The Holiday explored similar ideas of Harold seeking to move on by booking a holiday to “Sant Morrits”, while Albert instead advocates returning to Bognor. Great use of the staging brought this particular sketch to life. This was a hallmark of the whole production, particularly of the central “cart”, which doubled as the house, the front door, the upstairs bedroom and the downstairs kitchen. Finally, Two’s Company, the longest and most developed drama. Albert returns home late one night, and after much interrogation, Harold finds that he has asked a woman to marry him. When Albert brings her to the house, Harold realises that he and she have a complicated past… This episode is Kirsty Woodward’s real chance to shine, having been more or less non-speaking in the previous three, and she delivers a successful performance as Albert’s fiancé. This is probably the greatest example of the self-destructive nature of the father-son connection, and the best-constructed episode of the whole performance. All in all it is a solid attempt at capturing the Steptoe and Son legacy, but listening to Harry H. and Wilfrid while devouring a minimilk it ain’t.
Finishes tomorrow, more information here.
Written by a Thoroughly Modern Man, James Bomford.