Penny Flood sees TV's famous rag and bone men take the stage at The Lyric
Steptoe and Son at the Lyric is a delight. Its director Emma Rice has created terrific theatre from four TV scripts in Alan Simpson and Ray Galton’s long-running BBC sitcom about father (Albert) and son (Harold) rag-and-bone men.
She has done this by introducing a multi-role woman and imaginatively adding music, dancing, shadow puppetry, juggling, conjuring, clowning and hilarious miming to Louis Armstrong. As the production is from the wonderful Cornish theatrical group Kneehigh, the two men speak with Cornish accents, which works a treat here.
The resultant tragicomedy is both a pantomime for grown-ups and a touching depiction of the men’s desperate lives, hopes and frustrations, which is enriched by Rice’s take on the scripts. It’s a wonderful way to pass two hours. If you’ve never seen the TV shows, it doesn’t matter because this play stands on its own.
It is set in the sixties, when rag and bone men with their horse and carts were still a familiar sight. The decade is firmly established with props and lots of sixties songs. It opens as a dolly bird in a mini-dress plays Cliff Richard singing The Young Ones on an old Dansette record player. We quickly learn that the sixties didn’t swing for Albert and Harold in their messy yard.
There are just three people in the cast, who work together with sometimes comic sometimes heartbreaking brilliance. Albert (Mike Shepherd) and Harold (Dean Nolan, remarkably spry for a big man) together with Kirsty Woodward who plays various women as a well as doctor. Hercules the old horse takes the form of a big rocking horse, which also doubles as a seaside donkey in the second act.
The women played by Woodward drift around in many guises – the ghost of Albert’s wife, a bunny girl, a factory worker, a hippie, a bikini-clad beach babe. But she seldom speaks; she’s their dream. When she finally does become flesh and blood, it is a real tragedy.
Harold wants to leave his father, the yard and all its ties with the past and stand on his own two feet. He feels trapped and wants to be his own man, as vividly expressed through the song 'You Don’t Own Me'. And he shouts at his father: "So I’m trapped, that’s what it amounts to don’t it.... I’m trapped."
That’s the tragedy. He can’t even get to go on holiday on his own. But the only thing that’s stopping him is himself. We know that, his father knows that but poor self-deluding Harold can’t see it - and that’s where much of the humour also comes from, together with the really funny bits the original scripts and through the performances and direction.
If you want to see this smashing production, you’d better be quick as it’s only in until April 6 as part of Kneehigh’s national tour.
You can find out more about Steptoe and Son here. Book tickets here or call the box office on 020 8741 6850.
March 22, 2013