In a new age perfectly suited to a smaller cast, Southwark Playhouse presents a revival of the late Charles Dyer’s Staircase. This two-handeris a politically and emotionally charged play about what it was like for same-sex couples living in England during a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence.
Written and set in the 60s, just prior to the partial removal of these now abhorrent laws, the story is that of Harry and his partner of twenty years, Charlie. The two live together, along with Harry’s mother, in a house above the barbershop that they run together – aptly named Chez Harry. With Harry hiding his dwindling locks beneath a turban of bandages, and Charlie facing a court summons for presenting in public in women’s clothing, the couple find themselves at odds, threatening to tear their companionship apart.
The auditorium is dressed superbly by designer Alex Marker; from the checkerboard flooring and swivelling barber chairs, up to the cracked washbasin tiles and mandatory portraits of celebrities who have nothing to do with the shop. Every element of the set feels in-keeping with the time and adds an authenticity to the scene, whilst allowing easy movement of the stage and its many props.
Tricia Thorns direction seems to suit the text well, bringing together many aged elements of the original play with a modern nuance. There is a definite ebb and flow in the scenes which prevents it from ever feeling static or under energised, when one of the pair is still the other is charged and energetic – either internally or physically. Whilst the performances of Paul Rider and John Sackville, as Harry and Charlie respectively, are well played throughout, there are many noticeable missteps and much of the humour simply fails to land with the audience.
The comic lacking here may not entirely be a fault of the creatives involved in this production, but rather a testament to the age of the piece. Along with the dated humour, by the authors own admission the play was heavily censored at the time by the Lord Chamberlain due to its homosexual context. This censorship may also account for a flattening of the narrative that leads to very little love for these men. Their constant jibes and mockery seem to be solely vicious, doing little to endear us to a relationship built over twenty years, with nothing compelling to keep them together. There is, however, a very real and well-structured exploration of the fear and courage that these men display when navigating this dangerous society.
A play that harks to a darker time, when growing old with the one you love was as uncertain as your freedom, Staircase explores the struggles that the queer community has lived with for generations. Aside from its pitfalls, there is a wonderfully witty edge to this play which explores the symbiotic nature of relationships.
Staircase is now playing at Southwark Playhouse until 17 July. For more information and to book tickets, visit Southwark Playhouse’s website.