Comedy Theatre, London SW1
Opened 22 February, 2006

It’s not uncommon for big-name or well-loved actors to be applauded simply for walking onstage. Occasionally, even a set design will be clapped. But I don’t think I have ever before heard applause for a voice. On opening night, though, no sooner had Jake Nightingale opened his mouth than the clapping began. He has captured the weak Rs, the slight slur, the overall proletarian drawl of the late Harry H. Corbett, who originated the role of Harold Steptoe. In comparison, Harry Dickman as his father Albert is not quite as ferret-lean as Wilfrid Brambell, nor does he attain the same London/Irish accent or the extremities of facial gurning, but he’s close enough for nostalgia.

Writers Ray Galton and John Antrobus (replacing Galton’s original partner Alan Simpson) protest that they are not interested in either simple nostalgia for the beloved TV sitcom (1962–74) or in mere impersonation from the actors. Indeed, things start off with a welcome absence of retrospection. In more or less the present day, the fugitive Harold returns to the rag-and-bone men’s old home, now a National Trust property and kept authentically squalid though odour-free. He finds himself haunted by the ghost of the father he murdered some 30 years earlier. As Steptoe senior begs for the forgiveness that will let his unquiet spirit rest, the pair look back on various episodes in which Harold’s social, intellectual, material or romantic ambitions were time and again sabotaged by his dad.

The writing in the first phase is refreshingly sharper than that in the TV series, closer to Galton & Simpson’s work with Tony Hancock. But once we’re looking back at young Albert being sold to the Nazis or repeatedly thwarted in love, a warm fug of familiarity settles: we are at home with these characters and their relationship, and little jumps out to distinguish these scenes from any we might remember from the series. What is most palpably missing is the poignancy of Harold’s trodden-on dreams; the vinegar of tragedy is dispensed with as soon as we hear Albert lamenting that he met his end “Run through with an assegai while I’m sittin’ on the karsey.” Those unfamiliar with the Steptoes will be tolerably amused by Roger Smith’s production but also bemused by the warmth of its reception from greater devotees.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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