Charles Dyer’s Staircase at Southwark Playhouse
In the UK in 1966, it was illegal to be gay. The Wolfenden Report was reaching its 10th anniversary without any action being taken and he was a very courageous and perhaps reckless man who let others know their sexual orientation. The partial decriminalization of homosexuality was a year away and this whole sordid affair was frowned upon at all levels of society. So when playwright Charles Dyer wrote the story of two gay men in a romantic relationship and Peter Hall planned to direct it, it’s no wonder the Lord Chancellor’s office got involved. After some discussion and script changes, the play was performed but has rarely been seen since. however, Staircase was relaunched in 2021 at the Southwark Playhouse, and I went to check it out.
Charles Dyer (John Sackville) and Harry Leeds (Paul Rider) are barbers. They have a little shop – called Chez Harry – in the basement of a house. There are other people in the house, including Charles’s elderly mother residing in the attic. Charles and Harry also live in the house. In fact, they have been sleeping in the same room for twenty years. The two are partners in every sense of the word but, of course, no one is allowed to know that. Harry is small, calm and quite modest. Charles – or Charlie as he prefers – is tall, looks young for his age, and boisterous. He was an actor and every moment of his life is a kind of performance. On this Sunday in October 1965, the two men had a major problem to resolve in their lives. Harry is losing his hair. It might not seem like much, but when you are a hairdresser with hair restoration products for sale, going bald is not an option.
Charlie’s problem is more worrying. He was recently arrested in a pub while sitting in a man’s lap and anxiously awaiting to see if he will be prosecuted. The signs don’t look good because, in addition to the seated knee, Charlie may have attempted to make a proposal to a young cop. With a relationship built on sparring and joking, the two resort to calling on each other to cope with their issues, and as their verbal abuse escalates, they both reveal the kind of truths that are often best not told.
In 1966, when Staircase was first performed, I was only three years old, so I wouldn’t have known what sort of reaction this play of two homosexuals in a committed relationship had on its audience. That must have been good enough because in 1969 it was adapted by the playwright into a film with Rex Harrison and Richard Burton in the lead roles. Sadly, 54 years later, I don’t think the story has aged well. Within minutes, my main concern was why were these two men together? Both hands work well when there is something that connects the main characters. Think of Steptoe and Son. Despite their hatred for each other, they stay together as 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 locked up for a few weeks would have been good for both of them.
The story sometimes seemed quirky. For example, there was someone living in the house who had a friend around and then saw them come out the door but, unless I missed it, I couldn’t understand why they were there. Were they another member of Harry’s family? After all, it was, as he reminded us, his home. Was it a tenant paying for a room? No idea. Likewise, the subplot of Charlie’s previous relationship wasn’t really explored and just looked like a plot device to hang Harry’s resentment more on.
John Sackville and Paul Rider, Charlie and Harry respectively, played their roles well. They went out of their way to bring the two barbers together and managed to squeeze every laugh and laugh out of a pretty flat script. The couple’s tragedy went well and their moments of anger with each other were timely and believable. The direction of Tricia Thorns is well done, but the restrictions we currently live under mean that there can be no contact or hug, which is a shame because even something as simple as a supporting hand on the shoulder could have softened the characters and given more of a glimpse into their relationship.
All credit to set designer Alex Marker, costume designer Emily Stuart and sound designers Dominic Bilkey and Sarah Weltman for their work creating a perfect 1960s barbershop, two well-dressed barbers and very appropriate sound. and from the right parts of the scene. .
All in all, I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate Staircase as much. It was obvious that everyone involved had worked really hard to bring the show to a modern audience, but to me it felt very dated and neither the story nor the script was strong enough to spark my interest and me. get me to worry about Harry and Charlie and their troubles.
Terry Eastham live review
It’s the early 1960s. Charlie and Harry are hairdressers in Brixton and have been together for 20 years. Fast-paced humor and dreams keep them afloat, but same-sex relationships are illegal and Charlie has been arrested in a pub while sitting in a man’s lap. Simmering under hilarious jokes and mockery, Charlie eagerly awaits a court summons and Harry has his own issues – his hair is falling out quickly, a disaster for a barber.
This burst of laughter is crossed by the sadness of those who cannot live openly because the law and the public condemn them to a secret life. Change might be in the air, but for these two it might as well be a hundred years from now. Staircase is a bugle call for a more tolerant and more generous society; for a world where people can be who they are at their heart; where love is love and love is forbidden in all its forms.
Actors Paul Rider and John Sackville
Director Tricia Thorns
Scenographer 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 will star in
Charles Dyer’s staircase
Age guide 14+
From Wednesday 23 June to Saturday 17 July 2021
Press night: Friday June 25, 7:30 p.m.
Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BD