Staircase (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: June 26, 2021 in Theatre

Writer: Charles Dyer

Director: Tricia Thorns

⭐️⭐️⭐️

In 1966, London was swinging like a pendulum, England’s men’s football team was winning the World Cup and, amid all the celebrations and gaiety, homosexual relationships continued to be illegal. Charles Dyer’s comedy Staircase, depicting the lives of a middle-aged gay male couple, was premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company in that year and, by the time that a 1969 film version appeared, starring Rex Harrison and Richard Burton, our repressive laws had already begun to change. If for no other reason, director Tricia Thorns’ revival of the play is worthwhile for giving us a snapshot of a significant period in LGBTQ+ history.

Dyer, who died in January 2021, treads carefully, seemingly not wanting to offend the sensitivities of the age, nor incur the wrath of the Lord Chamberlain, with anything too explicit. The loud and clear message, perhaps novel in the ‘60s, is that these two guys are just like everyone else, doing no harm to anyone, and the writer asks us to laugh at their dilemmas without sniggering at them. Curiously, Dyer gives one of the characters his own name and he calls the other Harry C Leeds, an anagram thereof. The couple, both hairdressers, have lived together for 20 years, but both now have problems. Charlie is awaiting a court appearance for donning drag and sitting on a man’s knee in a pub and Harry is losing his hair.

John Sackville’s Charlie is preening and theatrical, bordering on hysterical. He taunts Paul Rider’s Harry cruelly as he fusses around like a mother hen, his head swathed in bandages to hide his increasing baldness. They bitch, they bicker and there is little more to the play than that. Occasionally the writing steers the characters too close to camp stereotypes like Julian and Sandy, popular in the ‘60s from the Round the Horne radio show, but Sackville and Rider give them more depth, always reassuring us that their relationship is built on mutual affection. Of course, there are no verbal or physical demonstrations of such affection and what may go on after the pair climb the staircase together we are left to guess.

All the action takes place in the South London Barber’s shop where the couple work, which is realised sharply in Alex Marker’s set design. The play carries a deep sense of lives unfulfilled because of unjust laws and social hostility. Charlie and Harry both talk of pretending to be married (to women), both are, to some extent, in denial of the truth to each other and, more poignantly, to themselves.

Seen outside the context in which it was written and first performed, Staircase is not much of a play. It is rooted firmly in a specific time and place and Thorns can do little to give it modern relevance. However, her production boasts two first rate performances which at least breathe some fresh life into it.

Performance date: 25 June 2021

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