A British 1960s sitcom about a rag and bone father and son team, as different as chalk and cheese, doesn’t seem an obvious choice for theatre company Kneehigh, more known, as they are, for magical realism than intergenerational conflict.
Director Emma Rice, however, manages to find the magic in the iconic pairing and presents a still grimy, just rather more glitzy, Steptoe And Son, where the pair may still clash violently, but they’re just as likely to do something about it through song as they are with their fists.
Opening to the whimsical sounds of a string version of Wallace Collection’s Daydream, that is exactly where we find ourselves; in a dreamy version of reality where a huge moon hangs low over the Steptoe & Son cart, which opens up to reveal a cluttered menagerie of false legs, car seats and old golf clubs mingling with their washing line full of grubby vests and pants.
Staged as a series of short stories – though episodes might be more fitting in this case – the familiar characters find themselves eternally tied to one another, whether they like it or not, as son Harold tries with no success to leave the world of scrap metal behind and better himself, while his father conspires with often devious means to keep everything exactly as it has always been, cross words, dirty necks and all.
For Rice’s version, a woman has appeared in proceedings, albeit it always in the background, never quite infiltrating the pair’s small world. Adding to the daydream feel, Kirsty Woodward transforms from bunny girl to father Albert’s late wife, factory worker and potential love interest to flouncy flower girl, and encourages something Steptoe And Son purists may not be expecting, group dances.
Moving through a broad selection of music, the background warbling often takes centre stage as the trio twist to Cliff Richard, belt out Dusty Springfield’s You Don’t Own Me, mime to Louis Armstrong and slow dance to The Way You Look Tonight.
It all goes towards creating the feeling that we are heading back in time to witness memories from another era. Packed full of pathos, each story sees the pair come full circle; Harold with his dreams of grandeur attempts to break out of his life, before his father, the king of guilt trips, drags him back to where they started, stuck with one another in their yard full of broken objects and bottles of booze collected from the dregs of ones found in junk yard pickings.
Of course, if it all sounds a bit depressing, it isn’t; packed full of the famous dark comedy and ‘uncouth’ language from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s original show. Rice embraces this all, plus some physical comedy to boot. And if Dean Nolan’s flexibility doesn’t impress you, nothing will.