Have Emma Rice and Kneehigh run out of ideas? This was once a revolutionary company, with such charm and colour, who told odd little stories in richly imaginative ways. Their shows were gentle yet restless, punctuated with thrilling flashes of darkness.
But I’ve seen all of Kneehigh’s tricks and the magic isn’t working anymore. Perhaps this is because their shows now play out on a much larger stages. This company used to work in tents but now they’re bounding about at the Lyric. It’s hard to be endearing and quirky on a grand scale. All the sparky theatrical effects – the little jigs, the winks at the audience and scrappy little tea towels with scene names scribbled all over them – just don’t work as well in a big space. The ‘sweet’ stuff is starting to turn sickly.
Furthermore, I’m not convinced that Kneehigh’s theatrical playfulness is the best starting point for an adaptation of the classic British sitcom, Steptoe and Son. Ray Galton’s and Alan Simpson’s show is undoubtedly more sophisticated than most TV scripts but it is still a TV script – and that means TV dialogue. The transfer of dialogue from TV to theatre is always tough but it is almost impossible when the stage in question is a Kneehigh stage; cluttered, symbolic and deeply theatrical.
Amid such richly textured visuals and dramatic flourishes, the dialogue sounds particularly thin. That is a massive problem since, other than Kneehigh’s indulgent theatrical interpolations, the chat is all we’ve got here. Precious little happens in Steptoe and Son. That’s the whole point; there’s a whiff of Beckett hovering about this father (Mike Shepherd) and son (Dean Nolan) duo who are forever trying to move on but who always find themselves right back where they started.
The classic Kneehigh touches - the karaoke sessions, a moon that doubles up as a clock and the spooky cold music that trembles beneath every scene - only make the dialogue sound weaker still. While these kooky visual and aural touches scream out ‘THEATRE’, the dialogue whispers ‘television’. The actors and the characters they play struggle to make themselves heard above all that dramatic din.
While the show practically groans with theatrical embellishments, the really important stuff - the central relationship between father and son – has been taken for granted. It feels like Kneehigh has assumed the audience will have prior knowledge of the show and will happily fill in the gaps, thickening up the central relationship and plumping up the characters’ back-histories.
But I have not seen much of the original sitcom and cannot do Kneehigh’s work for them. Perhaps they’ll do the job themselves next time round.