Southwark Playhouse, London – until 17 July 2021
Set in 1965, Staircase takes us back to a time when homosexuality was still criminalised in Britain. Written by Charles Dyer (who only passed away recently in January 2021 at the age of 92), this play was first performed in 1966, directed by Peter Hall for the RSC. Revived today, it shows us just how far LGTBQ+ rights have progressed in the last 56 years, rights we should continue to hold precious and protect.
The piece is set in a barbershop called Chez Harry, where Harry C Leeds (played by Paul Rider) and Charlie Dyer (John Sackville) live and work together. Their relationship has the rhythms and cadences of a long suffering married couple, which is darkly ironic given Harry’s regret that he never managed to achieve the respectability that comes with marriage and the growing suspicions he has had to navigate as an unmarried, aging man.
Marriage is held up as the ultimate mask or defence against any questions that might be raised about their sexuality, although Charlie’s own short-lived marriage so many years in the past doesn’t give him the protection he desperately craves, given a recent encounter with the law.
Tricia Thorns’ direction of the show is fully Covid-19 compliant, so there is no direct physical contact between the two actors throughout the performance. For the most part this works well, as Charlie and Harry bicker, snipe and annoy each other. Charlie is scared about the repercussions of his encounter with the police. Will he be summoned to court? Will he go to prison? Will the judge recommend “medical” treatment?
It is genuinely horrifying to go back to a time when that was such a real possibility. Sackville’s Charlie is flamboyant, petulant and mean to poor Harry. He loves to relive his thespian glory days, treating the last two decades with Harry as some kind of career hiatus. Sackville expertly balances Charlie’s exuberance and fear. However, the softer moments, where the love he feels for Harry creeps through, aren’t given enough space to truly land. It is at these moments that we feel the loss of the intimacy that physical contact and familiarity bring. The glimpses of tenderness that come from touch are absent.
Rider’s Harry is a sympathetic, down-to-earth foil to Charlie. He makes tea and on the face of it seems to be the calm one, but faces his own fears for the future, with the loss of his hair. While his worries seem smaller than Charlie’s (at least he doesn’t face the possibility of prison time), they do speak to a growing sense of his own mortality. There is something very loveable about Rider’s Harry, even as we laugh with Charlie at his current predicament. While Charlie, the consummate actor, succeeded in playing the “straight” roles of husband and father (albeit briefly), Harry never managed to pull it off, and feels like he lived a compromised life as a result.
“Staircase” is a beautiful period piece, about the half-life, hidden existence gay men had to live in Britain before homosexuality was decriminalised. While it does feel dated in places, Sackville and Rider give two strong performances that take us beyond some of the unfamiliar language and jokes of the time. While there are a few laugh-out-loud moments peppered throughout the play, this is not a farce. It is a poignant and funny piece of theatre. I just wish Harry and Charlie could have hugged.