The Southwark Playhouse has been transformed into an authentic 1960’s barbershop for the revival of Charles Dyer’s hit play Staircase, by Two’s Company and Karl Sydow in association with Tilly Films.
Sackville and Rider keep the banter flowing apace
Alex Marker’s set creates that ‘wow’ response upon entering the auditorium. The black and white chessboard floor fills the space and two dark red period barber’s chairs, along with a trolley of hairdressing implements, stand proudly on it. The sink and the mirror are there and giving a nudge to the nature of the place, photographs of gay icons with immaculate haircuts form a gallery wall. Marlon Brando, James Dean and Clark Gable are to be found amongst several others. To this is added some significant music from Sound Designer Dominic Bilkey, starting with the ominous There may be trouble ahead, which turns out to be something of an understatement.
Charlie (John Sackville) and Harry (Paul Rider) are hairdressers in Brixton. They’ve been together for twenty years, living under the shadow of laws that made their relationship unlawful. Charlie is awaiting a court summons following his arrest in a pub for sitting on a man’s knee and propositioning a police officer. It’s not his first such brush with the law and his stress becomes increasingly manifest. Harry, meanwhile, is helpless as he watches his hair fall out and contemplates his future as a bald barber. There is very little more to this scant plot.
The substance of the play focuses on the claustrophobic relationship between Charlie and Harry who live and work together on the premises, along with Harry’s mother who occupies the attic. It’s something of a miracle that they have stayed together for so long given that they are in a state of perpetual fault-finding and forever bickering. Sackville and Rider keep the banter flowing apace, with the balance of power alternating between them as they go from impassioned rants, to melancholy reminiscences and into flurries of vitriol. They are well matched in a piece of artful casting
Director Tricia Thorns has made a valiant effort to bring life to this play which resonated far more strongly in the years before the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, 1967, and subsequent legislation that decriminalised certain homosexual acts. There are some delightful period touches when the guys enjoy pink marzipan rolls and Battenberg cake with tea poured from a brown crock pot into floral and yet more pink china cups with gold rims. However, the relentless exchanges between the couple become somewhat wearisome as the second act moves on and there is no more storyline to develop.
Staircase is a fine example of the style and issues that are found in much 60’s drama and as such it is of historic significance, but like so much from that period it probably hasn't aged too well.