On the day of the general election in 1966, the Prime Minister Harold Wilson pleaded with the BBC to postpone an episode of Steptoe and Son until after the polls shut. He was anxious that Labour voters would stay at home to watch the comedy rather than venture out to the polling booth.
Steptoe and Son in Murder at Oil Drum Lane, a new play about the pair, is not likely to return the rag-and-bone men to those heights of popularity, but it makes for a riveting night all the same.
What the play recaptures is the pathos that suffused the original. It was always as much of a tragi-com as a sitcom. Scripted by Ray Galton and John Antrobus, the new piece uses a neat device as a dramatic set-up. Twenty-nine years ago, Harold, exasperated beyond endurance by his father's wiles, hurled a spear at Albert while he sat on the loo. Convicted of murder, Harold managed to escape from jail. Having spent the last three decades on the run in Brazil, the now 71-year-old Harold is returning to his squalid former home at Oil Drum Lane for one last trip down memory lane.
At the glorified junk-heap he used to call home, he is visited by the ghost of his father. Albert can only be released from purgatory if his son signs a chit confirming his contrition. This is the springboard for the pair to re-enact a string of vignettes from their life together, which all recollect the ever more fiendish ways in which father thwarted son. In perhaps the most poignant of the episodes, Albert concocts an outlandish story to keep Harold apart from his beloved Joyce (Alyson Coote).
As much as anything, Roger Smith's production is a tragedy of unexpressed emotions. Harold can never fulfill his desire to leave home and breathe the less fetid air away from Oil Drum Lane. He recalls that in 1949 he was sent to Malaya to put down the Communists. "They wanted independence." He pauses. "I know how they feel." Meanwhile, Albert's true love for his son is only ever articulated as the most stifling form of possessiveness. His catchphrase is "Don't go, Harold".
In the leads, Jake Nightingale (as Harold) and Harry Dickman (Albert) deliver uncanny impersonations of Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell's original characters. But beyond a Rory Bremner-like accuracy, the actors also succeed in bringing out the quiet desperation of the characters.
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