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Murder in Oil Drum Lane - Bob’s Review
When a new production of Steptoe and Son was announced, the press and media were rightly excited. However it wasn’t the shows intriguing title that captured their imagination but rather who could ever replace Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corrbett as the immortal Steptoe and Son. Into the spotlight walked Jake Nightingale as Harold and Harry Dickman as Albert. While it is always obvious that they are not Brambell and Corbett (and why should they be), they are soon excepted as Steptoe and Son …. job done. It should be noted however that Nightingale in particular had spent time listening to Harry playing Harold Steptoe and incorporates this in his performance, which makes the whole piece far more acceptable for those members of the audience who remember the original.
The curtain goes up to reveal that well known living room complete with Skeleton, stuffed bear, and a large quantity of “objet d’art” (Junk to you and me). However the first person to walk in to the room isn’t Albert or Harold but a young attractive woman wearing the uniform of English Heritage. She seems rather at home in Oil Drum Lane and we soon learn that that the Steptoe business is now in the hands of English Heritage as it is one of the few examples of what is now a dead trade. As such it attracts thousands of visitors a year as a site of historic interest !!
The yard is about to close for the day when a man arrives. We all know him as Harold Steptoe but to the curator he is just another visitor who she needs to get rid of before she can go home. She doesn’t pick up that this visitor is a little bit different and just wishes he would go. For some reason she appears completely oblivious of Albert who wanders in and out.
Harold engages the lady in conversation to find out a little more about the property. He is told that English Heritage came by the property following the death of the elderly parent at the hands of his son, who was subsequently tried and convicted of murder. The son managed to escape to Australia and English Heritage have held the property since then.
It seems that Harold could finally take no more and committed what had always been inferred throughout the series…… patricide. Much to Harold’s annoyance the lady from English Heritage thinks it was a sad end for a pool old man and thinks the son is nothing but a brute. This also explains the reason why the lady can’t see Albert …. he is a ghost.
Harold manages to dodge the evening lock up routine and stays behind once the day time staff have gone home. It is then that he meets the ghost of his father. Not surprisingly Albert is none to happy about being bumped off, Harold tries to explain that the last 20+ years haven’t been a bundle of laughs for him. It’s not too long before the two are bickering again and trying to apportion blame for why their respective lives have been so awful. We are treated to a number of flashback scenes where the Steptoe history is, literally in parts, fleshed out, particularly in the scene where Harold brings his girlfriend home to meet his father, only to find him in the bath, hat on eating pickled onion’s. There are screams of laughter as Albert jumps out of the bath exposing his bare bum to the audience and much worse to the girlfriend.
It is important to say however that the production isn’t a string of the best parts from old episodes put together to pass a couple of hours. Ray and his writing partner John Antrobus have taken the time to put together a completely original story for the stage. They have however taken time to try to correct a number of disconnects that appeared during the making of the original TV series. Writing this review some three and a half years after seeing the play I hope readers will forgive me for not remembering them all, but one of the more obvious ones is Harold’s age and his military service.
During the 60’s episodes Harold Steptoe service during World War 2 is mentioned, however in the 70’s episodes to make him appear a younger man we are told that he served in Malaya. Historically both of these events are unlikely to be true, however the writers give us a plausible solution which brings the first half of the show to a close with howls of laughter.
While the show stays true to the original feel of the show, with much of production featuring the two main players, a number of incidental characters are introduced to help illustrate the story and give it some added spice which was undoubtedly necessary to make a stage show more appealing. Of course there were Harold’s girlfriends, one in particular who managed to sit quite provocatively on Albert Steptoe table. Given that I was only a couple of rows from the front, I am at a loss to understand why I can remember the image, but none of the dialogue from this part of the show !
The most bizarre character to appear was Von Ribbentrop played by Laurence Kennedy. A Nazi who somehow enlists Harold in the Hitler Youth.
The most abiding memory I have of Murder at Oil Drum Lane is just how fresh and funny it was some 30 years after the last episode was screened. I saw the production in London’s West End where a large number of the audience would not necessarily have been aware of the show and how important it was to people like me. The show had to work for them and stand alone as a complexly original, coherent and ultimately funny production. In this context it didn’t disappoint.
After a couple hours of wonderful memories and laughter the show comes to it’s exciting climax. It would be wrong of me to give the end away, however it is fair to say that (with the benefit of a huge drop of hindsight) the play ends with the usual outcome and Albert getting the upper hand. I’m just not going to tell you how.
And so the Steptoe story comes to an end and we finally find out what has happened to Albert and Harold after the show left our TV screens in the early 70’s. While it is the end of the story, I hope it is not the last time we are presented with new Steptoe material, and I hope that one day the show can tour again or a DVD or TV version can be made.
To answer a question posed on this website’s forum “should they have done it” the answer is an undoubted ….. YES.
This review was written in November 2009 and based on a production of Murder at Oil Drum Lane seen at London’s Comedy Theatre on 25th March 2006. My memory may be playing a few tricks with me so please feel free to send any corrections or clarifications.