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Steptoe and Son (Susan Elkin reviews)

Adapted for stage by John Hewer from Ray Galton & Alan Simpson. Produced by Hambledon Productions. The Comedy Museum (26 Jan 2018 and touring)

The relationship between father and son who both love and loathe each other may be timeless but I’m afraid rag and bone men are ancient history. A lot of the material which made Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s Steptoe and Son so apt, well observed and funny in the 1960s has not stood the test of time.

Adapted by John Hewer (who also plays Harold), this short, two-act show has no coherent story line because it tries to feature the best bits from the original seven series. It ran on TV in 30-minute episodes and the seams are clearly visible here.

The first problem is whether or not the actors (quite well directed by Rachael Hewer) should actually try to mimic Wilfred Bramble and Harry H Corbett who created these roles for TV or whether they should take the script and try to do something fresh with it. This show seems to have opted mostly for the former.

Jeremy Smith hops about gleefully, screwing up his eyes and delivering inappropriate remarks with cheerful malice – and he looks and sounds very much like Wilfred Bramble in role. It’s a noteworthy imitative performance.

John Hewer as Harold is passionate, yearning and unable to laugh at his own absurdity. I had forgotten, too, just how articulate Harold is with his knowledge of history, literature and all the rest of it as he constantly tries to better himself only to be – predictably – thwarted by his father. Hewer’s problem is voice. He seems to be aiming for the very distinctive voice Corbett found for Harold – high pitched, cockney overlaid with schooling and a pronounced, peculiar nasal whine close to a speech impediment. Occasionally Hewer gets it. Often he doesn’t. It would be better, I think, if he simply did his own thing. As it is, his mish-mash accent is a distraction.

Together, with Peter Hoggart (good) who plays minor roles such as the milkman, the vicar and a news reporter, they create situation comedy which occasionally amuses although it’s very clunky for the first twenty minutes. The best bit is the scene with the vicar whom Old Steptoe delights in trying to shock – to Harold’s predictable, embarrassed consternation.

A nostalgia show aimed at people who remember comedy before we had four letter words on TV, set in the days when learning to dance the foxtrot was the way to your girl’s heart? Maybe, but it’s so long ago in every sense that I suspect, that for many audience members, it needs foot notes. And a lot of it is no longer funny anyway.

The Museum of Comedy, new to me, is a delightful little venue by the way. Situated in the “undercroft” (basement) of St George’s Church, Bloomsbury it is very attractively converted with a good bar area, an interesting exhibition about the Georgian building and a pretty little proscenium auditorium.

First published by Sardines:


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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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