How do you transfer a much-loved sitcom like Steptoe and Son to the stage?
How do you transfer a much-loved sitcom like Steptoe and Son to the stage? Laura Davis finds out
EMMA RICE’S instructions to the designers of her stage adaptation of Steptoe and Son are quite surprising. She wanted a clutter-free set.
Fans of the vintage sitcom will find it hard to separate the image of the squabbling rag and bone men from the junk that surrounds them. Old bedsteads, broken musical instruments, stacks of books and half-drunk wine bottles are the backdrop to their belligerent, yet ultimately endearing, relationship.
“Obviously that’s a contradiction,” she admits, “but I wanted to get a sense of their isolation.
“I think the play is quite operatically staged. There’s a sense of the universe around them and their tiny world in the middle of it. We do have lots of lovely junk but it’s very contained and placed within a broader context.”
To create Steptoe and Son for Cornwall-based Kneehigh Theatre, which is touring it to the Liverpool Playhouse next week, Rice has merged four TV episodes – three from the first series and one from the third. The overarching story spans the sitcom’s existence, from 1962-74, beginning with the pilot episode, The Offer, which shows Harold desperately trying to leave the scrapyard for a better life and his father wheedling to keep him there.
Almost all the dialogue is by the original writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.
“I went into it with quite an open mind but it became clear that their writing is so brilliant that it would be really silly to try and work against that,” says Rice.
“I’ve done a bit of a mash-up but all the genius is theirs.”
Actors Mike Shepherd and Dean Nolan are not impressionists, she is quick to emphasise, and in fact have Cornish accents rather than Cockney.
“When you’ve got something like the (TV version of) Steptoe, it exists – you can watch it before you go into the show and after. That work is seminal and brilliant so the only reason to do it is to do something different,” says Rice, who used to pretend she couldn’t sleep so her parents would let her stay up and watch it.
“You can tell the older audiences who have known the original. There’s probably a seven minute adjustment period of realising that it’s not a tribute show. There’s no impressions of Wilfred Brambell and Harry H Corbert. But once you’ve got through those first minutes it just rocks along.”
She has however, done something which Albert Edward Ladysmith Steptoe (Brambell) and Harold Albert Kitchener Steptoe (Corbett), never quite managed – brought in a woman.
“The one thing I was sure I wasn’t going to do was have a show with only two men in it so I was of looking at how femininity effected their lives,” she explains. “While they’re so busy being locked into their relationship and their scrapyard they don’t notice the world changing so I have this female character who circles the action showing that time is changing, but she also comes in as various girlfriends, wives, mothers, love interests.
“It’s like she tries to get in on their relationship but ultimately they don’t let her.”
Theirs is the sort of all-consuming familial tie that few would be brave enough to intervene in, yet it was just this that originally attracted Rice to the idea of taking it to the stage.
“They popped into my head and I laughed to myself because Kneehigh’s like a big family,” she says.
“We’ve been going for 32 years, there are a lot of very old relationships going on and we’ve definitely all said ‘I’m gonna leave’ at some point. I felt a real recognition of family and the strength of family bonds but also the desire to escape.”
Few of us are tied into relationships with our parents as suffocating as that of the Steptoes, but most of us have experienced some elements of it, she adds. This is why the sitcom is still affectionately remembered today, despite not receiving the same repeat-and-repeat-again treatment of its contemporary sitcoms, such as Dad’s Army.
“It doesn’t date at all – it’s about parents and children,” she says.
“But on a broader political issue, people are getting older, caring for older relatives is right smack bang in the middle of the agenda. A lot of us have to return to those unresolved relationships.”
STEPTOE and Son is at the Liverpool Playhouse from November 6-10.