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Showing at Southwark Theatre, Staircase, written by Charles Dyer, was originally performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967 and subsequently made into a film, writes Carolyn Hart Taylor. 

Dyer’s play shines a light on the twenty-year homosexual relationship between Harry (Paul Rider) and Charlie (John Sackville). Set in Harry’s barber shop, audiences are greeted with the iconic 60s barber shop paraphernalia of red leather flip back chairs, basins, and a black and white chequered floor. 

Dramatic tension drives the play as we witness various complications culminating as a result of the couple’s homosexual life. Remember, two men living together in the 60s was considered scandalous! Add to that Charlie being summoned to court accused of licentious behaviour towards a policeman and you’ll understand why this play never leaves the confines of the barber shop – Namely, fear! 

Dealing with the theme of oppression, Dyer opted to write the play as a comedy, but light and chipper it isn’t. In fact, it’s dark, a comedy so caustic you may find yourself flinching at Charlie’s scathing and vitriolic insults towards his partner. What you’re actually witnessing is Charlie’s own self-loathing as, unaccepted by society, he turns on Harry and pretty much everyone else. Hence, masking his pain with acerbic humour prevents us bonding with Charlie. 

Given decades of progress around equality, this play can be an uncomfortable watch. Derogatory descriptions of his 90-year-old mother as a ‘sad, sad, shrivelled bitch’ and a ‘veiny, grizzled bag’ alongside other put downs about women in general, may leave the audience with more questions than answers as they try empathising with Charlie’s plight. 

Harry provides the much needed softness but, clearly, the barbed arrows have taken their toll; with eyes downcast and a voice thick with indignant resignation, he fights with integrity. 

Both actors impressed in their characterisations and memorised lengthy and complex dialogue, whilst also conveying the resulting claustrophobia that comes with living a secret existence. 

The second act was more polished than the first as Harry shuffled along, weighed down from the verbal scars, whilst Charlie grew increasingly animated, fuelled by his scathing put-downs. 

The actors were great at their parts but there was no sense of hope, so don’t expect a jolly time. Plus, Staircase felt dated, hence my mixed feelings! 

Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BD until 17th July. Times: Mon-Sat 8pm; Tues & Sat matinees 3.30pm. Admission: £22. 

Box Office: www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk or 020 7407 0234. 

Image: Phil Gammon

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