Steptoe & Son in 'murder at Oil Drum Lane', York Theatre Royal, York

Harold discovers there's plenty of life left in a deceased dirty old man
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The Independent Culture

The device of having Harold having murdered the old man is a cunning one, especially when developed so substantially as it is here, with contemporary references and the same style of dark humour.

Harold - having escaped the clutches of the law, and a life sentence in Broadmoor - has returned from his Brazilian hide-out, and drops in to their old place in Oil Drum Lane.

When a trim, prim National Trust curator pushes in a hoover, it's not to clean up the scruffy interior of the totters' former home but to empty out the hoover bag, keeping the grime in pristine condition. Harold, now aged 71, turns up to this carefully preserved NT property just on closing time. He charms his way round the guide, and ends up locked in. Before you can say "You dirty old man!" Albert glides in, a substantial ghost, locked in purgatory, he explains, until Harold releases him by showing remorse.

The two main characters, Harold and Albert, played by Jake Nightingale and Harry Dickman, are well represented. Nightingale is particularly good at capturing the mannerisms and body language, and slight speech impediment even of Harry H Corbett, conveying Harold's frustration and constantly thwarted ambitions.

Dickman shuffles around in brown woolly cardigan, trademark red neckerchief and crumpled black trilby. His leer isn't as evil or malicious as Wilfrid Brambell's, but the pathetic expression, the wily ways and the emotional blackmail he applies are recognisable enough.

The director, Roger Smith, wanted to avoid recreating the dead but while not quite a Dead Ringers impression, this lively production comes pretty close and none the worse for that, though the resident skeleton looks a bit thinner.

Having found a way of reincarnating the father and son who eat away at each other, Galton and Antrobus take us down a fictional memory lane. In short scenes we see Harold desperate for schooling while his father puts an end to that. Short of a bob, Albert sells his son to a Nazi buyer, a wheeze that goes darkly wrong with the unfortunate Jewish relatives by the name of Stepstein.

Harold and his desperate attempt to bag a bird, Harold's desire to be cultivated, Harold's need to be blokish, Harold's pride in serving his country, Harold's belief that his fortune will be made ... at every turn his old man gets in the way. And if you're wondering about the tin bath and the pickled onions, they're there too.

A stunning coup de théâtre (which it would be shameful to reveal) suggests that this really is the demise of Steptoe and Son unless there's some call for a couple of rag and bone johnnies beyond the pearly gates.