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'Staircase' at Southwark Playhouse

The Two’s Company has uncovered and revived yet another forgotten play. Half a century later, coming back onto the British theatre stage at the Southwark Playhouse, is none other than the two-hander titled Staircase.

As you walk down the corridors decorated with fairy lights leading to a black box-style performance space, the background music from the 60s lures you in, allowing you to discover an immaculate scenic design by Alex Marker. The mix of primary colours from the checkered blue walls and the three red ceiling lights immediately immerses the audience, from their constricted plexiglass bubbles, to the simply equipped barbershop, with its two hydraulic chairs and a sink. This creates a fictional environment, letting you escape 2021 for a while as it takes you back to the late mid-twentieth century.

At an eponymous barbershop called Chez Harry, one of the characters, Harry, is concerned about his rapid hair loss and the other, Charlie, awaits a court summons for his indecent behaviour as a result of his supposedly depraved act whilst masquerading in female attire. Closeted, married with a child, professional actor; Charlie is by no means a ‘poof’! As he dances around and sings ‘Alopecia!’ to the tune of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus to provoke his lover Harry, or when he mimics his tics, and compares the pimple on the top of his almost bald head to Cleopatra’s titty, comical entertainment seems to be at the centre of Staircase.

However, beneath all comedic tone lies darker problems. The characters are a closeted gay couple in a society that considers homosexuality to be a criminal offence. The play starts and ends with Charlie on one of the barber chairs, ready to give another rendition, but what begins as a jovial banterous exchange ends in a monologue recounting the lonely life of a man who faces the vicious cycle of the never-ending stigma around homosexuality. This major underlying theme proves itself to be very relevant to the present, especially during Pride Month, where we celebrate the efforts to achieve equal opportunities for the LGBTQ+ community.

When the play was first put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967, censorship in British drama was just starting to ease up on playwrights. Indeed, it was only when the Wolfenden Report was published, after an increase in homosexual offences in post-World War II Britain, that Lord Chamberlain’s Office started to relax its control. Nevertheless, the times have never been able to wipe out same-sex love. As director Tricia Thorn says humourously: "Covid-19 has done what the Lord Chamberlain couldn’t – stopped the hugging." Although there is no close physical contact between the actors due to coronavirus restrictions, this quote is a testimony to the strength of love. It serves as a reminder that love is love, no matter the gender, even amidst a world where a great deal of homophobia still exists.

Overall, a good balance is achieved between humour and the dark reality of time in order to broach the serious topic of the stigma faced by homosexual couples. Whilst the dynamic between the actors was well-defined, the play did feel a little long at times. Nevertheless, it needs to be acknowledged that putting on a play in these difficult times governed by the pandemic is not easy, and it is very much appreciated to be able to go to the theatre again.

Photos: Southwark Playhouse


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