Southwark Playhouse, London – until 17 July 2021
There’s a deep sadness at the heart of Charles Dyer’s 1966 play Staircase, both onstage and off. Today we might define it as internalised homophobia but at a time when homosexuality was still very much illegal in the UK, such a diagnosis must have seemed unnecessary. As it was, to get the play staged by the RSC, it had to submit to heavy censoring and though it was later made into a film starring Rex Harrison and Richard Burton, it was recalibrated into a camp comedy that twisted it even further away from authorial intent.
The play takes place over a long night of the soul for hairdressers Charlie and Harry in the Brixton barbershop Chez Harry (beautifully realised by set designer Alex Marker). They’ve have been together for 20 years but with Harry struggling to cope with his receding hairline and Charlie revealing an impending court case after being arrested in a pub for sitting on a man’s knee in drag, tensions are rising, putting their already spiky relationship under further strain.
It doesn’t bear thinking about what kind of strain conducting a partnership that the law considers illegal would put on a person so in some ways, you can see the value in holding some emotional distance, using bitching and banter to form a protective shell in case of an enforced separation. And Dyer gives us that in spades, Paul Rider and John Sackville relishing the verbal barbs they get to inflict as any hit of baring souls is met with the baring of teeth, the corrosive effect of not being able to live openly in no doubt.
Director Tricia Thorns is clearly alive to the challenges of this revival, steering it clear of throwaway campery, even working the (presumably mandatory) physical distancing into the play, physical contact being reserved only for the most assuredly private of spaces.
Dramatically, one might wonder what an unedited version of the play would have brought but even so – and particularly so in Pride month – Staircase affords an eye-opening look at a slice of recent LGBT+ history and a study of how life might be if we didn’t have so many of the comparative freedoms we’re lucky enough to enjoy today.