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Staircase by Charles Dyer at Southwark Playhouse | Review

In the UK in 1966, it was illegal to be a gay man. The Wolfenden report was reaching its 10th birthday with no action taken and it was a very brave, and possibly foolhardy man that allowed others to know their sexual orientation. Partial decriminalisation of homosexuality was a year away and the whole sordid business was frowned upon at every level in society. So, when playwright Charles Dyer wrote a story of two gay men in a loving relationship and Peter Hall planned to put it on, its no wonder the Lord Chancellor’s office got involved. After some discussion and changes to the script, the play went ahead but has rarely been seen since then. However, Staircase has been revived in 2021 at the Southwark Playhouse, and I went along to check it out.

Staircase: Charles Dyer (John Sackville) and Harry Leeds (Paul Rider) - Photo by Bonnie Britain.
Staircase: Charles Dyer (John Sackville) and Harry Leeds (Paul Rider) – Photo by Bonnie Britain.

Charles Dyer (John Sackville) and Harry Leeds (Paul Rider) are barbers. They have a small shop – called Chez Harry – in the basement of a house. There are other people in the house, including Charles’ elderly mother residing in the attic. Charles and Harry also live in the house. In fact, they sleep in the same room and have done so for the last twenty years. The two are partners in every sense of the word but, of course, nobody is allowed to know that. Harry is short, quiet and pretty unassuming. Charles – or Charlie as he prefers – is tall, looks young for his age and loud. He used to be an actor and every moment of his life is some sort of performance. On this Sunday, in October 1965, both men have a major problem in their life to deal with. Harry is losing his hair. This may not sound like much but when you are a barber with hair restorer products to sell, going bald is not an option.

Charlie’s problem is more worrying. He was recently arrested in a pub while sitting on a man’s knee and is anxiously waiting to find out if he is going to be prosecuted. The signs do not look good as, in addition to the knee sitting, Charlie may have tried to proposition a young police officer. With a relationship built on sparring and banter, the two men resort to having a pop at each other in order to cope with their problems, and as their verbal assaults escalate, they both reveal the type of truths that are often better left unsaid.

In 1966, when Staircase was first put on, I was only three years old, so wouldn’t have known just what sort of reaction this play of two gay men in a committed relationship had on its audience. It must have been pretty good as in 1969 it was adapted by the playwright into a movie with Rex Harrison and Richard Burton in the lead roles. Unfortunately, 54 years later, I don’t think the story has aged well. Within a few minutes, my main concern was why were these two men together at all? Two-handers work well when there is something that links the main characters. Think about Steptoe and Son. Despite their hatred of each other, they stay together because they ultimately need each other. I just didn’t get that feeling with Charlie and Harry and their relationship just seemed very toxic. In fact, I think Charlie being locked up for a few weeks would actually have been good for both of them.

The story felt out of kilter at times. For instance, there was someone living in the house who had a lady friend round then saw them out of the door but, unless I missed it, I couldn’t work out why they were there. Were they another member of Harry’s family? After all, this was, as he reminded us, his house. Was it a lodger paying for a room? No idea. Similarly, the sub-plot of Charlie’s previous relationship was not really explored, and simply felt like a plot device to hang more of Harry’s resentment on.

John Sackville and Paul Rider, as Charlie and Harry respectively, played their parts well. They put every effort into bringing the two barbers together and managed to extract every laugh and chuckle out of a pretty flat script. The tragedy of the couple came across nicely and their moments of anger at each other were well-timed and believable. Tricia Thorns’ direction is well done but the restrictions we are currently living under, mean there could be no touching or embracing, which is a shame because even something as simple as a supportive hand on the shoulder could have softened the characters and given more of an insight into their relationship.

Full credit to Set Designer Alex Marker, Costume Designer Emily Stuart & Sound Designers Dominic Bilkey and Sarah Weltman for their work in creating a perfect 1960s barbershop, two well-dressed barbers and sound that was highly appropriate and came from the correct parts of the stage.

Overall, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy Staircase that much. It was obvious that everyone involved had worked really hard to bring the show to a modern audience but for me, it felt very dated and neither the story nor the script were strong enough to engage my interest and get me to care about Harry and Charlie and their travails.

3 Star Review

Review by Terry Eastham

It’s the early 1960s. Charlie and Harry are hairdressers in Brixton and have been together for 20 years. Quick humour and dreams keep them afloat but same-sex relationships are illegal and Charlie has been arrested in a pub while sitting on a man’s knee. Simmering underneath the banter and hilarious mockery, Charlie anxiously awaits a court summons and Harry has his own troubles – his hair is rapidly falling out, a disaster for a hairdresser.

Running through this laugh-out-loud comedy is the sadness of those unable to live openly because the law and the public condemn them to an undercover life. Change may be in the air but, for these two, it might as well be a hundred years away. Staircase is a clarion call for a more accepting and generous society; for a world where people can be who they are in their hearts; where love is love and that love is championed in all its forms.

Cast Paul Rider and John Sackville

Director Tricia Thorns
Set Designer Alex Marker
Costume Designer Emily Stuart
Lighting Designer Neill Brinkworth
Sound Designer Dominic Bilkey
Producer Graham Cowley

Two’s Company and Karl Sydow in association with Tilly Films
Paul Rider and John Sackville to star in
Staircase by Charles Dyer
Age Guidance 14+
Wednesday 23rd June – Saturday 17th July 2021
Press Night: Friday 25th June, 7.30pm
Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BD
https://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

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