Staircase

Charles Dyer
Two’s Company and Karl Sydow in association with Tilly Films
Southwark Playhouse

John Sackville as Charlie and Paul Rider as Harry Credit: Phil Gammon
John Sackville as Charlie and Paul Rider as Harry Credit: Phil Gammon
Paul Rider as Harry and John Sackville as Charlie Credit: Phil Gammon

Staircase is set in 1965 in barber Harry Leeds’s London shop where he and Charles, whom twenty years ago he rescued from a failing theatrical career and introduced into his life and his business, are sorting out Sunday.

They are clearly a gay couple but, when first presented by the RSC, not only were male homosexual acts counted as criminal but the Lord Chamberlain’s office still censored theatre and did not allow explicit depictions of homosexuality. The programme quotes Dyer who, in his introduction to Oberon’s edition of the play, says they “savaged” the script and wanted to ban any hugging and kissing. There is no hugging or kissing in this production either but that’s because it is compliant with safe distancing COVID protection measures (of which more later).

When the play was filmed with Richard Burton and Rex Harrison, they played it as camp comedy but Tricia Thorns’s production takes it very seriously, for this is a play about men who have been brought up to hate what they are. Harry is much more balanced about it but even he imagines a creation in which sex doesn’t seem so down there and dirty and might happen instead through the touching of head-sprouting antennae.

Charlie makes claims to manliness because he was once married, having fathered a daughter when trying to act straight. Indeed, he’s in a bit of a panic because decades since he last saw her, she is coming to visit tomorrow, but terrifying him much more is that he is about to be summoned on charge of importuning a policeman when caught in a pub dressed as a women and sitting on a man’s knee. He claims he had just got a scarf round his waist and was doing it for a bet anyway, but it is clear that Charlie’s versions of his life don’t stick to the facts.

Charlie’s fantasies and sharp tongue provide much of the humour, but it is blunted here (at least if you are in a party of one) by the Perspex screens confining you in your personal bubble. John Sackville has a strong voice and plays Charlie with an appropriate accent, but this safety measure seems to interfere with clarity. It is very much kinder to the much gentler delivery of Paul Rider playing Harry. This is a beautiful study of a kind man handling the hurt that he is frequently feeling, like when Charlie taunts him about the hair loss that so worries him as a barber by singing “Alopecia!” to the notes of the Hallelujah Chorus.

“I’ve spent a lifetime bolstering you,” says Harry, “when have you bolstered me?” That can be true of many relationships, not just gay ones, but Staircase is a particular reminder of how hard it was (and still is for many) to be gay in a society that does not accept you.

The constraints of self-censorship even before the Lord Chamberlain blue-pencilled a script do date the play, but perhaps that makes it even more painful; it needs its humour to show through without or it can be quite heavy going. The actors are doing a good job, but go with a friend; in a bigger bubble there’ll be more air round your ears!

Reviewer: Howard Loxton