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.
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.
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.
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.
*Currently accepting commissions for exactly this type of work…