“It is the start of a journey that [Emma] Rice hasn’t quite finished yet”, I speculated after seeing Kneehigh Theatre’s The Wild Bride some two years ago. Rice, joint Artistic Director of Kneehigh, is developing more now than ever before – as her latest piece, Steptoe and Son at the Lyric Hammersmith, confirms.
Mature and bordering on melancholy, this three-hander strips back what has become formulaic Kneehigh song, dance and foolery, leaving a sophisticated presentation of a father and son connected like elastic; forever fated to bounce back to each other. Rice is attuned to the darker side of storytelling, and this comes through well. She directs with maturity and passion, and Steptoe and Son certainly shows that you should never second-guess a directional style.
For those of you too young to have seen an episode of Steptoe and Son, the two title characters, Albert Steptoe (played in this version by Mike Shepherd) and his son Harold (Dean Nolan) run a scrap cart, flogging their wares for a bob or two. In Rice’s adaption, four episodes from the series form the basis of the show, which focuses on the inevitable loneliness of the pair, who we soon realise are doomed to end their days ‘married’ to each other. This is partly because they’re almost too content to be together, each unable to progress without the other.
It’s unlike Kneehigh to deliver a small scale show, but with only three cast members, the style of Steptoe and Son feels somehow distilled compared to earlier Kneehigh productions. The cast don’t play instruments, unlike most Kneehigh Theatre shows; instead, long-term collaborator Simon Baker provides a backdrop of songs and original composition. The dancing interludes are smaller than usual, too, although Nolan does offer some superb high kicks and bootylicious grinding. None of this is to the detriment of the production; it only goes to confirm my belief that Rice as a director is entering a more sophisticated method of working. Thankfully, though, Steptoe and Son still contains Kneehigh’s trademark playful agility, managing to find laughs in the characters’ loneliness.
Crucial to the production is the competitive relationship between Nolan and Shepherd, who continually (often literally) bounce off each other. Despite being the older of the two, Shepherd appears more childlike than Nolan, whose control is apparent. Although it takes a while to get going, by the second act, the pair’s connection dazzles. Nolan is particularly compelling in his Kneehigh debut, especially opposite founding member and all-time loveable fool, Shepherd.
As Kneehigh’s global brand is building, they are tentatively searching for new devices to tell their stories. Steptoe and Son, whilst offering a quieter, closer inspection of its characters and their family bonds, still displays the fun and frolics that we’ve come to love from this company. It’s not as joy-inducing as their last offering, Midnight’s Pumpkin, but still tickles you gently and teases out a tear or two as well.
Steptoe and Son is playing at Lyric Hammersmith until 6 April. For more information and tickets, see the Lyric Hammersmith website.