FringeReview UK 2021
Directed by Tricia Thorns, with Set Designer Alex Marker, Costume Design Emily Stuart and Lighting Designer Neill Brinkworth. Sound Designers Dominic Bilkey and Sarah Weltman. Stage Manager/Operator Lucy Ventham, ASM Mark Smith. Till July 17th.
What’s in an anagram? The late Charles Dyer (1928-2021) isn’t just lending his name to one of the two characters of his 1966 West-End/Broadway smash Staircase; everyone this actor-turned-hairdresser Charles Dyer mentions is an anagram. When his partner Harry C Leeds point this out he adds his own name to that list, having twice pointed out he doesn’t exist. And just why does one character accuse another of being a staircase?
So you need to forget one thing: a pioneering play written nine years after the 1957 Wolfenden Report and a year before very partial legalisation of homosexuality (it’s actually mentioned as upcoming) is about a lot more than two hairdressers slugging wit out in a home industry Chez Harry’s hairdresser with mother upstairs and a mysterious lodger who never does turn into Mr Sloane. We do get crashes and later a policeman, if not an inspector, calls.
Having seen a few sleepwalking reviews I can only record this: if anyone walks out of this production thinking it period-limited, that themes flatten, gay men haven’t got to glance back and wince with recognition – sorry, you’ve been nodding for two hours-five. But you won’t nod. Even in a distanced audience the cheers echo; we get it.
A different 1966. Ostensibly we’re at five-to-midnight of full-on legal homophobia (increasingly given to self-lacerating puns, this couple really would call it the fag-end), but Dyer’s cannier than to create a mere time-capsule. In his previous smash Rattle of a Simple Man (1962) he crafts a warm encounter between a forty-year-old virgin and a tart with more than heart. It’s full of so many moments that can or do go awry. Here too, Dyer explores a far more complex relationship with twenty years to go wrong at every turn; and does something daring. It’s subtle and devastating.
First, there’s older Harry Leeds. He’s taken beautifully by Paul Rider as exasperated adult; so much so he’s losing his hair, or more precisely, to Handel’s Alopecia! Chorus: as his younger partner former actor Charles Dyer (yes Dyer was a former actor-turned-writer, and married, though more happily) doesn’t stint telling him. Though Alopecia can be reversed, it’s disastrous for a hairdresser with all his hair restoratives lined accusingly on the shelf.
And John Sackville’s night-errant Charles has a charge hanging over him, sitting in a pub in women’s apparel on the knee of a sturdy family man and propositioning a policeman. It’d only mean a fine, so why’s he so terrified? Not just because the inspector responding to the constable’s anxieties suggests if Charles does kill himself, it’ll save a lot of trouble.
There’s something the phrase-repeating Charles hides, through the very tic of Dyer’s clever verbal charactery. Charles is repeating like an actor to persuade himself he exists, more frantic and verbally inventive as he peels reveals like greasepaint.
And that’s the crux. Dyer’s taken homophobic clichés and played with them to the point of proper absurdism, then drawn away to something richer. So you think gay people are narcissistic, always in search of their younger selves? OK, let’s take a couple as anagrams of each other, whose existence is girt with anagrams – one significantly younger-looking. And let’s make that the dramatist’s own name with anagrams. Oh and let’s point out that this couple have been together 20 years, when gay relationships are so inherently unstable.
Then marinaded in all that is the actor’s fear s/he doesn’t exist, and the Pirandello-like use of the writer’s own name to populate the stage. Then when we seem to go the way of Ionesco-by-Bayswater, pull the absurdist rug from under its own feet and reveal something different. Something achingly tender and not sexual at all. Hugs for instance.
Between Rattle and Staircase Orton arrived, anarchic absurdism played with in Entertaining Mr Sloane. Dyer’s verbally more inventive, subversive rather than anarchic. In place of sheer theatrical exuberance he plays with a slap of rebellion. Wince and you’ll miss it.
Directed fluidly by Tricia Thorns with a real sense of ebb and paciness, it’s grounded in some first-rank production values. Set designer Alex Marker has produced a stunning chequerboard floor with dirty tided circles at the edges. The glass door with reverse sign, the period barber’s chairs in reds, the mirrors and late 1950s en brosse stars in black-and-white photos who’ve never heard of the place, the working leaky sink, the sweepings and light turquoise walls. Emily Stuart works in period costume authentically and Neill Brinkworth plays with lighting diffusion, and times of day including a hopeless dawn. Sound designers Dominic Bilkey and Sarah Weltman waft period music we all know. And as we’ve heard, noises off.
There’s reveals both characters bring out in their co-dependant mutual laceration – which in a time of distanced acting isn’t softened by those hugs in the original production (banned by the Lord Chamberlain who was ignored). A necessary redaction skews the play’s feel; armed with director’s notes on this we can imagine.
If Rider’s Harry seems more adult, he’s threatened by the imminent visit of Charles’ 21-year-old daughter, whom only Charles has ever seen – when she was one. Another cliché sunk: though Harry casts just a little doubt and laments they can’t have a child together to cherish. How achingly prescient that seems now. Harry recalls a moment when he hugged a small child, just for comfort and a father ‘with a face all over his head’ interrupted.
Again, Dyer’s pointing up a knee-jerk assumption to show the way people are excluded from human warmth through prejudice. Though he’s also shrewd enough to have Harry point out that single men aren’t usually encouraged to lead scout troops.
Charles is embarrassed by Harry, wanting to straight-act for his stranger daughter. He’s also obsessed by his love-hate with his mother, taking a pressed flower from Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse she placed there in the last noughties, before she married his strict vicar father. Charles swears, shouts, but always puts it back. His mother’s senile, doesn’t recall how she hated him. ‘Bats of a feather’ he suggests both mothers might be. And there’s a missing couple of years of his life Harry is going to probe.
There’s a point to this barrage of badinage; it likely influenced the 1969 film The Killing of Sister George. Just as Harry’s turbaned head has eventually to give way to something singular, so the couple need their mutual savageries to feel the other’s truth. Near the end Charles leaves off and Harry misses it. It’s more than a kind of loving. Testing and forging each other their exchange this time tears deeper. A crisis of the unspoken looms. Agreed fictions teeter. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf throws a latticed shadow. But Dyer – and Charles and Harry – have answers.
Returning I see two men hand-in-hand boarding the train at Brighton with their dog. Even in Brighton it’s still not common. Laws might have dissolved, gay couples can marry and parent children. But the pressures of otherness, of assumptions, of exclusion explored by Dyer, remain. Staircase is one of those spirals from there to here. And did I say it was heartbreakingly funny?
There’s craft enough to hold attention too, direct you to what’s actually being said and never to lose pulse. Verbal pyrotechnics with Rider’s mournful vaudeville and Sackville’s cliff-edge fright of serve-and-return – the very model of lapsed matinee – keep this rich-tea world from longeurs. It’s slow burn, but not overlong: my attention ever dipped.
‘Dyer, Wycherley to Pinter’s Congreve’ as literary agent Giles Gordon once called him, gets sexual impulse in ‘a heightened, baroque language of loneliness, lust and sexual inadequacy.’ He strips personal dynamics down to sex or need (like Horner and Mrs Pinchwife) then builds a glinting theatrical engine. Here it’s a barber’s mirror with age staring back. Then adds a redemptive twist with a swirl of warm breath.
Last revival Two’s Company brought to Southwark -in February 2019 – was the unjustly-neglected James Saunders’ Bodies, a superb 1977 play. Always searching for prescient neglected small classics, Staircase proves them – and Southwark – again unerringly on point.
A first-rate revival of a play that with its ostensible shock-value in aspic, reveals subversions and a clever structure so unsettling we should all look in the mirror and wince.