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Staging a Screening

I spent an enjoyable couple of evenings last week working on a writer-friend’s screenplay. It’s been an interesting process, seeing how something relying on tracking shots and additional cameras could be made to work for stage. If you’ve ever done this yourself you’ll know that the easy part is the dialogue edit. What’s more difficult is effecting scene transitions that not only feel natural, but place the cast where you need them to be. Add to that the physical limitations of the set, and all sorts of fun and games kick off.

burning manuscript, adapting screen for stage

Last Saturday, by weird coincidence, I saw this very challenge made flesh. I attended the Duns Volunteer Hall for a Duns Players’ double-bill comprising Steptoe & Son and The Vicar of Dibley, two much-loved television sitcoms adapted for stage.

Lately the am-dram world has gone crazy for these ‘adaptations’ — use the term loosely; they’re often very little more than the original sitcom scripts — and it does make sense. Theatre groups and audiences alike must struggle to maintain enthusiasm for yet another musical sung in an American accent liable to  more slippage than Helen Flanagan’s nipples.

Indulge me a moment. Why can’t Maria ever be an exiled Tory who falls in love with Von Trapp, a benefit scrounger with seven kids and a Staffie called Captain, who is being chased out his council house by Northumberland County Council? Why can’t Calamity Jane be a lesbian with a gun fetish and a passion for Wild Jill Hickock? And why can’t we base them here? In the Borders? Where people speak reliably funny and not unreliably Noo Yoik?*

On an am-drammer of long standing, the lure of the classic sitcom must act like catnip on a kitten. They want to pounce and rub Richard Curtis all over themselves, run around in circles until they fall down dizzy with Clement and La Frenais. But I would advise a word of caution. Just a word, mind, because I’m all for anything that doesn’t carry the threat of a precocious ginger kid bursting into song (she was given away for a reason, people).

That advice would be to find a sitcom that can best balance its comedy with the practical demands of staging. Because what became apparent watching Steptoe & Son and The Vicar of Dibley last Saturday, it’s not as easy as you would think.

First up then, Steptoe & Son, directed by Helen Forsyth. Wonderful performances from Bob Noble as Albert and John Schofield as Harold, with fine support from Christine Sclater and Genny Dixon. Noble had Albert’s unappealing grimace to perfection and Schofield wisely steered away from attempting an impression of Steptoe Junior, delivering instead a warmer, less scathing Harold than the original.

Bob Noble, in Duns Players production of Steptoe & Son

Bob Noble knew no lady could resist his devastating smile

Dixon and Sclater put in game performances as Madame Fontana and Dorothy Duddy respectively. These actresses were wonderful in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads back in 2011, but they were saddled on this occasion with two-dimensional characters.

And, for me, that was part of a wider problem — the script hadn’t aged well. It felt dated, fixed very much in the period in which it was penned; a time when people had less but laughed more easily. I’m inviting accusations of heresy but I’d even query, once nostalgia is stripped away, whether Steptoe & Son is actually funny. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

The Vicar of Dibley is a superior script with fully realised characters that allow the actors just to get on with things. Genuinely strong performances from all involved, but special mention must go to Charlotte Tait as thick-as-mince Alice, Nigel Warren as no-no-no-yes Jim Trott, and Euan McIver as bloody-Owen-shit-Newitt.

Charlotte Tait as Alice Tinker in the Duns Player's performance of The Vicar of Dibley.

Charlotte Tait as Alice wrestles with one of life’s big questions: what’s brown and sticky?

The laughs came continuously and the cast maintained pace and a high level of energy throughout. But, yes, there was a problem.

Put simply, The Vicar of Dibley — like my friend’s screenplay — was originally written with multiple transitions and scene changes. Steptoe & Son, meanwhile, naturally lends itself to theatre adaptation. Discussing this issue with John Schofield after the show, he made the interesting point that it may be down to Steptoe hailing from an era when TV cameras had all the mobility of small tanks. Back in the 60s and 70s, it made sense practically and economically to keep things relatively static.

So while The Vicar of Dibley may have gained over Steptoe & Son in script quality, it lost out to it in staging. There were too many transitions to go unnoticed, and while these were handled as well as they could be, on occasion they caused the spell to wobble.

That said, take a bow first-time directors Helen Forsyth (Steptoe & Son) and Matt Taylor (The Vicar of Dibley), who rose to the occasion of taming that bastarding bugger of a venue, the Volunteer Hall. Subscribers to this blog will know how much animosity there is between me and ‘that building’. To those am-dram companies fortunate to have a proper theatre for your home — you don’t know you’re born.

In a non-site-specific venue, putting on a production is stupid-hard, requiring thinking so lateral that it could birth an alternate reality. The Duns Players’ tech team made ingenious use of lighting, going a long way to ease the staging difficulties, and strong casting choices ensured that the audience enjoyed a nod and a wink to the originals.

There you go then. If you’re planning to stage sitcoms, choose wisely; it’s not easy. But saying that, your audience will enjoy an evening of laughter and shameless nostalgia. When times are hard and more unstable than a peg leg on muddy cobble, there isn’t really anything better.

Black Adder, sitcom for stage adaptation

*Currently accepting commissions for exactly this type of work…

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5 comments on “Staging a Screening

  1. My fave line from Step & Son was when Harold was castigating his father for the state of the stable. Old man said “I’d eat my dinner off of that stable floor” Harold’s reply. “You would but the horse wouldn’t.”
    In my opinion, yes funny! But what do I know?

  2. Here’s a really good comment from Lisa Summers of Berwick Opera, who are planning a performance of ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ later this year. (sent via Facebook)

    “Hmm, I don’t completely agree with you on the ‘bugger of a venue’. We went on opening night and loved the fact that you could sit downing (cheap) drinks all night at tables. They’ve a nice little bar and will even bring (cheap) drinks to your table during the performance! In time, I expect they can become even more inventive with their staging and a few more blocks to add depth to the ‘stage’ wouldn’t go amiss – I was worried the cast might actually topple off during ‘Steptoe’. They can put their stage wherever they like and I guess they can decorate the whole hall, depending on the production – endless possibilities! ( I do wish their prompt would bugger off, they haven’t needed one during the two productions I’ve seen recently and it is rather distracting having her sitting in full view). I would think they get more rehearsal at their venue than those of us who use purpose built theatres. For instance, for our ‘Vicar of Dibley’ we will get just one tech/dress rehearsal in the actual performance space lasting a few hours. It is too expensive for us to book more and we are limited with our set because the theatre has films showing which means we have to have a set that can allow for a film screen to come down during the day before our last performance. Of course we are all pleased that the theatre is a nice busy venue, which it needs to be to stay open (so that we can use it!) but I also think a small town like Duns is lucky to have their community facility. Oh, and Duns Players need to advertise their productions more widely. It’s almost like a secret society where you need a password to attend!”

  3. I have to say I do agree with Lisa about the publicity – I only ever hear about the shows at Duns via the Advertiser usually a week before or a week after they’ve happened. I do think the Volunteer Hall poses a number of staging challenges – but from the show I’ve seen there (High Society) and what I’ve heard generally, the theatre group seems to rise more than ably to the challenge. In fact, I’d say we are truly blessed with the number of shows and performances of excellent quality around Berwick and the Borders.

    • Thanks, Jax

      Yes, the lack of information about production and ticket sales has caused a few grumbles. The Players are blessed with a staunch local fan base so perhaps they don’t feel the pressure to draw people in from further afield. More communication between am-dram groups would be helpful too, to coordinate productions so that audiences aren’t faced with repetition in the same year.

      And I agree, the Borders really is home to an amazingly creative and talented bunch of people!

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