adapted by Emma Rice
at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 23rd October 2012
First, an admission: before seeing Kneehigh’s new production of Steptoe and Son, I’d only seen a handful of episodes of the classic series (three of which were viewed in the hours prior to the performance). I say this because I’m probably not the target audience here. In comedy terms, I’m of a Peep Show generation, an era bookended with The Office and Fresh Meat. The humour in Steptoe and Son doesn’t appeal to me and probably never will, as it’s pretty far removed from my own experience living in the twenty-first century. I’m therefore hardly the perfect audience member for Emma Rice’s theatrical adaptation of this ‘British classic’. But then one question perpetually repeats itself throughout the two-hour long show: if I’m not the right audience, who is?
Before that, a bit about the show itself. What Rice and her team present us with, rather than a new or complete narrative arc of Albert and Harold Steptoe, is four famous episodes with a theatrical twist. These four segments – ‘The Offer’, ‘The Bird’, ‘The Holiday’ and ‘Two’s Company’ span eight years of the show’s history (though the first three were made within six months of one another), and are clearly chosen to create, if not a narrative arc, at least an emotional one. But other than themes of separation and threats of leaving, little connects them and their choice feels a little arbitrary. This could be my ignorance, of course – these may simply be the best episodes of the entire run – but nonetheless it’s difficult to recognise coherence.
The scripts are shortened to about twenty minutes and, though some sequences are lifted straight from the TV series, dialogue is often adapted so that it works well on stage. Alongside this, Rice has also inserted a female figure (played by Kirsty Woodward) who acts as a sort of chorus, beginning and ending the show playing period records and appearing in the story proper – as doctor, as Albert’s wife, as Harold’s date – when the script calls for it. Other theatrical tropes include a smart use of set and choreographed interludes.
The production in itself is, at a simple level, good fun and thoughtfully staged. Neil Murray’s set features large rag-and-bone cart (which doubles as the Steptoes’ house) backgrounded by a gorgeous night-time cloth and bright moon (lit beautifully by Malcolm Rippeth). Indeed, sometimes it feels that more thought has been put into the tech than the performances; Simon Baker’s soundtrack is more evocative and engaging than the text itself, moving gradually from Cliff Richard to Elvis Presley, including a moving underscore in the spaces in between.
The performances, however, feel a little neglected and are a little difficult to connect with. Mike Shepherd and Dean Nolan as father and son respectively (with relocated south-western accents) are touching, and create a solid double-act, but for all this they don’t quite cover up the fact neither of these characters is really very amiable. True, this criticism can be laid at the original series, but in those episodes we find a level of sympathy which isn’t easy to spot here. I understand that their perpetuating of one another’s happiness is necessary to the social comment Steptoe and Son tries to make – that working classes are trapped and have no way out – but to maintain the lack of redeemable features is, to me, questionable.
The most interesting question which the production raises, however, is that of adaptation. What makes a successful adaptation? When is it that an adaptation slips into the realm of mere copying? To my mind, Steptoe and Son errs between the two, and fails in being a true adaptation due to its lack of theatricality. Let me explain.
Trusty Google Dictionary defines the verb “adapt” as such: “Make suitable for a new purpose”. Extracting from this, then, we can infer that if we want to transfer a piece of art (a TV series, say) to another medium (the theatre, for sake of argument), then decisions have to be made to make that transition work. Now, as we’re all aware, the televisual and theatrical world include extremely different conceits and ask very different things of their audience, meaning that, in some cases, whole storylines may have to be chopped, edited, shifted and rearranged in order to accommodate those aforementioned distinctive characteristics. The reason why, for example, the stage play of War Horse and the Lord of the Rings films are so successful is because they buy into the idiosyncracies of their chosen adapted form, rewriting themselves as if they were created for that medium all along. And this is the crux of why Steptoe and Son isn’t successful; rather than making us sit up and wonder why the series was never adapted for stage before, the show features episodes simply picked up and dropped in a different setting (with a bit of dancing added in for good measure).
This comes back to my question about audience – if Rice isn’t trying to reinvent the story (though maybe rights inhibit this – if this is the case you have to question why it was ever done at all) then where is this production being pitched? Those with a fondness for the TV series will hardly look at it in a different light after this. Their time would be better spent watching the episodes themselves, for even if nostalgia is the desired aim then you’re not going to do much better than the real thing.
At the end of the day, the overall problem of Kneehigh’s Steptoe and Son is that, frustratingly, it’s just not very funny. When going to see a sitcom on stage, you’d expect more laughs to be present. There’s about one laugh-out-loud moment per ‘episode’, with a few giggles in between, but I’m sure that’s a smaller ratio than the original series, no matter what your views on it. I’m also slightly worried by the fact that something in this vein could go on indefinitely, as more episodes are selected as worthy for stage versions until we’re eventually subjected to dozens of similar productions. There are, I imagine, some TV shows which would work on stage, but in its present form Steptoe and Son isn’t one of them. There are the seeds of something quite memorable in this production, but one can’t help yearning for a little more originality. A few more laughs wouldn’t go amiss, either.