Reviewed – 25th June 2021
“John Sackville and Paul Rider command the stage throughout and restore the sense of period with their finely nuanced performances”
It’s difficult to imagine now that when Charles Dyer’s “Staircase” was first produced for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966, the Lord Chamberlain savaged the script, demanding cuts. A few expletives had to go (beggar replaced bugger), as were some fairly innocent references that were deemed to have a ‘homosexual’ context. But the hugging was allowed. The irony is that Covid 19 has finally achieved what the Lord Chamberlain couldn’t. The two actors in Tricia Thorns’ revival at Southwark Playhouse don’t touch. Thorns always suspected that lifting the restrictions would be delayed and so she took that into account. Whether intentional or not, this distancing has the fortunate side effect of heightening the sense of secrecy, surreptitiousness and suppression that surrounded same-sex relationships in the sixties.
Dyer’s two-hander is very much a period piece. Set in a Brixton barber’s shop it explores the fear and insecurity felt by Charlie and Harry (John Sackville and Paul Rider respectively); two gay men who run the salon. It examines what Oscar Wilde described as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. In 1966, if you were gay you could end up in jail. Of course, times have changed hugely since then, but the sense of isolation and loneliness that Sackville and Rider bring to their roles still resonate.
It is tempting to read into the script the autobiographical content – especially as the playwright has used his own name for one of the characters, and an anagram for the other. Charles Dyer and Harry C Leeds are an odd couple. We know they are a couple, but there are moments when that certainty falters, and we are reminded of the bygone television sketches in which Morecambe and Wise are sitting up in bed in their pyjamas. There is often too much innocence and ‘playing it safe’ in Dyer’s script which is undoubtedly a result of the time in which it was written, but it does soften the impact of the message.
In today’s climate this might be a struggle for the actors to get a solid grip on the characters and there is the constant danger of the writing appearing dated. But John Sackville and Paul Rider command the stage throughout and restore the sense of period with their finely nuanced performances. Sackville’s Charlie is a bit of an egoist, and very much in denial. An actor who hasn’t acted for over a decade and a father who hasn’t met his daughter yet. With a failed marriage behind him, he is clinging onto this fragile façade as a defence in an upcoming trial for dressing in drag and sitting on a man’s lap. Rider, as Harry – the slightly older lover, teases and torments while betraying an underlying hurt that Charlie is denying him his one stab at happiness.
After the interval the play gathers momentum as the disagreements give way to a vague harmony. It remains unresolved though, which reflects the brittle hope that the characters feel. A change is coming, but for the moment it’s not quite enough for them.
In retrospect, that change was a long time coming. Yes, we have come a long way since the sixties, but this show can serve as a reminder that there is still a way to go. Stigmas may disappear but internal repression often pervades. “Staircase” begins as a comedy but step by step you discover two lonely souls, unable to fully be themselves, or be with each other. It’s a fairly slow ascent, but the final touches to the piece are reward enough for making the climb.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Phil Gammon
Southwark Playhouse until 17th July
Previously reviewed at this venue in 2021:
Rose Theatre Kingston
Reviewed – 26th September 2019
“a very human story that pulls off the almost impossible feat of making you feel nostalgic for Thatcher’s Britain”
It is 1984 in London, and while Thatcher and Scargill are at loggerheads over the miner’s strike elsewhere, the city is setting the scene for its own battles in a time of cultural upheaval. There was a revolutionary spirit, partly fuelled by the property boom, that eventually found itself in the hands of the satirists. While Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” speech echoed from Wall Street, our home grown “Loadsamoney” became a national catchphrase. But among the cacophony, a quieter voice, in the shape of the late writer Stephen Jeffreys, captured the mood with far more humanity and subtlety. “Valued Friends” was the play that launched Jeffreys’ career and won him the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Award for most Promising Playwright.
In its first major revival in thirty years, the comedy and pathos still resonate in today’s turbulent economic and political climate. Yet the beauty of Jeffreys’ writing lies in his refusal to allow the social issues to take centre stage. They are merely the backdrop to the razor-sharp depiction of the characters, which makes his writing both era specific and timeless.
In a basement flat in Earls Court, four friends in their mid-thirties are scrabbling to keep their heads above water. They are thrown unexpectedly into a battle of nerves when a young, confident property developer offers them a substantial fee to vacate their home. Spurred on by the revolutions of their time, they quickly realise that they hold all the cards in this real-life game of Monopoly and, over the course of three years, they manipulate the burgeoning property market. But much more is at stake than a few quid, and that is what the audience cares about.
“How much do you care?” asks quirky, stand-up comic Sherry in the opening line. It is the beginning of a hilarious monologue about her journey home on the Underground, one of many delivered by Natalie Casey in a spellbinding performance that is a master class in comic timing. Meanwhile Michael Marcus’ Howard, an academic writing about the corruption of capitalism, is succumbing to the attraction of the pound signs waved in front of him. Marion and Paul make up the close-knit foursome destined to be torn apart. “You used to get some really good conversation in this flat. Burning issues and moral dilemmas and things. Now all everyone talks about is money”. Sam Frenchum, as Paul, brilliantly sheds his comic mantle as the keen music journalist to become the earnest home improvement enthusiast, while Catrin Stewart’s straight-talking, pragmatic Marion manages to pull our heartstrings as she discovers that the more she gains, the more she has to lose – on a purely personal level. Ralph Davis’ meticulously pitched estate agent, Scott, is a brilliant work of satire. Far from being a Mephistophelian figure he merely dangles the carrot. But show stealer is Nicholas Tennant as Stewart, who only appears in the second act as the hilarious, surreally philosophical builder.
Michael Fentiman’s sharp direction brings out the best of the actors on Michael Taylor’s simple yet ingenious set, that transforms in time-lapse motion from a scruffy basement flat to a swish, desirable property. This is a very human story that pulls off the almost impossible feat of making you feel nostalgic for Thatcher’s Britain. Richard Hammarton’s eighties soundtrack highlights the best of the decade, just as these characters shed a warm light on the heart of the matter. It’s a skilfully written and performed piece of modern satire: you shouldn’t like these people but, in answer to the opening question of the play, you care an awful lot.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Pamela Raith
Rose Theatre Kingston until 12th October
Previously reviewed at this venue: