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Steptoe and Son – Bristol Old Vic

Writers: Ray Galton &Alan Simpson

Adaptor &Director: Emma Rice

Music: Jim Henson &Simon Baker

Reviewer: Samuel Shelton


It’s a celebration of Steptoe and Son with Britain’s best rag and bone men.

The brilliant Steptoe and Son is still at its best 39 years since its final broadcast on the BBC. Something original writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson would have been proud to watch. This production shows the meticulous love taken by adaptor and director Emma Rice as she guts and glues together four episodes of the BBC series to form a seamless production for the stage.

Steptoe and Son opens with the pilot episode, The Offer, in which we see Harold Steptoe (Dean Nolan) claiming items of scrap to sell away from his entrapping father Albert (Mike Shepard). Albert then attempts to sabotage the move by disapproving the use of his pulling horse. After a passionate attempt to move the heavy cart it grounds Harold making him physically trapped in this most famous setting. It’s in this grounding where the true eloquence and poetry stamp a distinct mark of difference to the sitcom and this piece. Here we have the distilled version of Steptoe and Son, where it’s simple to laugh but it’s just as easy to cry.

This is followed by three more episodes of equal style, The Bird, The Holiday and Two’s Company. Each displays a dedicated understanding of the original script, with added unforgettable exposure to the relationships of these characters. Throughout the piece there begins to form a deeper meaning, Rice explores the reversal of fatherhood when it becomes difficult to determine who is dependent on whom.

Neil Murray’s set design is a triumph; the structure on stage resembles a giant old wooden box – a hybrid between a trailer and a bray. As the cast shuffle on stage genuine dust can be seen coating the audience. The set seems at its most ingenious with the use of shadow puppetry acting as a kind of animated interval between episodes. What is also visually striking about this piece is the cast choice, Albert swings open the doors of the scrapyard to reveal the ginormous Harold sitting inside like a giant in a cave. Shepard has that same grimacing old greasy face of the original Albert Steptoe (Wilfred Brambell) with all of his original glorious movements and mannerisms intact. The combination of Nolan and Shepard is entrancing, seeing the two entwine in between episodes in hilarious dance routines is a clear highlight. Nolan maybe big but he can move. Not to be forgotten is the part of Woman (Kirsty Woodward) whose rapid costume changes and flirtatious behaviour with both characters and audience is essential to tip this piece into a true work of art.

The only negative for this piece would be the constant use of eerie background music, with such talent on stage it seems a shame to mask them with scores that acted more as a kind of emotional dictatorship. The rest of the music however is brilliant, there are tracks by Elvis, Rolling Stones, Cliff Richard and a brilliant mime to a song by Louie Armstrong that is humorous as well as moving.

On a technical level the show isn’t without flaws but with legendary lines like, “Just because a prune is wrinkled it don’t mean to say it ain’t tasty,” it is easy to see why Galton and Simpson have been described as the founders of sitcom. The interesting combination of powerful performances by this three person cast and a set that should never be disassembled makes this show more than worth a trip in the snow.

Runs until 9th February 2013.

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