What’s happened to the gags? It’s not just the lack of a laughter track that makes it hard to place your smile at the start of this haunting interpretation of popular sixties sitcom Steptoe & Son. Lines that ring with familiarity land awkwardly and uneasily. Mournful incidental music muffles easy giggles as the set-up fractures into something darker and more wistful. This is a sitcom trying to remember what it is.
The clever thing is that adaptor-director Emma Rice has lifted four episodes virtually untouched from the original show. In ‘The Offer’ we meet manipulative rag-and-bone man Albert Steptoe (Mike Shepherd) and his exasperated son, Harold (Dean Nolan); in ‘The Bird’ Harold tries to date; ‘The Holiday’ sees the pair at loggerheads over Saint Tropez or Bognor; and ‘Two’s Company’ ends with a failed marriage proposal and a status quo wearily resumed.
Rice takes the sitcom reset button and makes it purgatorial. Each segment charts a loop of false hopes, from new jobs to new holiday destinations, that cycles back to the same point: Albert and Harold stuck unhappily together in a landscape of society’s junk and yesterday’s fads. The image of Harold failing to drag his overloaded cart off stage towards the bright light of a new job is comedy in close-up; the pain-etched face after a pratfall.
Stripped of the blur of old film and the neat punctuation of canned laughter, the viciousness of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s original scripts is sharpened. Albert and Harold’s experience of two different world wars comes to the fore as both a wrecking ball in their lives and an excuse for their failures, manifested as phantom leg complaints and the frustration of watching the world shrink to something the size of a totter’s yard.
The jibes become real, the mockery stinging and the threats more than just bluster. Shepherd’s snivelling Albert is as wrecked as the furniture he barters, while Nolan’s Harold is genuinely menacing at times. The production’s unspoken fantasy sequences, including a Grand Guignol suicide episode, spin the show into a feverish whirl of dark fantasies refracted through cultural trends.
All the while, a by turns graceful and coquettish Kirsty Woodward drifts spectrally through the production, sometimes as a Cliff Richard-loving teeny-bopper, at other times as the manifestation of Albert’s departed wife. Both the spirit of the times and the embodiment of loss, she represents the world they have lost and the one they are shutting out through their endless squabbling.
Sometimes the production’s pacing is off or it strains too hard for pathos, descending into a mawkishness that compares unfavourably with inspired sequences such as the one that twists the Perry Mason theme tune into a bravado piece of theatrical grand-standing. There’s something carnivalesque about Steptoe & Son’s cart, which opens up like an act displayed in a travelling circus.
Beneath the domestic turmoil, Kneehigh’s production flashes us something edgier, more chaotic. The exaggerated moon that hovers at head height and turns into the clock that Albert secretly puts forward an hour is typical of the wink-wink staging, which finds humour in the possibility of pandemonium, threatening to spill out into the audience. It’s a stylistic swagger that reinvents the sitcom as something anarchic and resonant at the same time.