The north-country born actor Sir Ian McKellen, during a private debate on Lowry held in February 2009 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London's South Bank, pointed out that when Lowry was a young man the Greater Manchester area, i.e. Manchester, Salford and Stockport, boasted no less than 64 live theatres ranging from an opera houe, music halls and grand straight theatres to modest venues for chamber plays. Lowry was, at the early stages of his obsession with painting, a keen theatre-goer and a great admirer of the so called Manchester School of dramatists like Harold Brighouse and Stanley Houghton. It was McKellen's view that Lowry painted not only theatrically in the sense of the dramatic content of his pictures, but that so many of his pictures sported a black line at the bottom which could represent say, a pavement in a street scene but which could also be the front edge of a stage and that the picture was executed as it if was framed by a traditional theatrical proscenium.
Many of the best Lowrys have this characteristic, including An Arrest (City of Salford), A Fight (City of Salford), An Eviction (private collection), all works portraying episodes in a working class life which could easily be scripted by Houghton or Brighouse. Few are quite as overtly theatrical as The Steps, Irk Place. It is so easy to visualize an, albeit narrow, proscenium and behind it a backdrop between the two houses and behind the steps - ah, yes, steps again - showing the children's playground, the church and the factory. This is an almost Blakean image of children happily and innocently playing against a background of dark satanic mills.
But, from the top of the steps to the front edge of the canvas we might as well be in a theatre. The majority of the modest-sized crowd of 17 adults and children are looking, expectantly, at the two men in a state of confrontation on the roadway between the two houses. The man on the right with this hands up 'reaching for the sky' makes you expect, even hope that the one on the left is a professional criminal so that you wonder why he hasn't yet got a revolver in his left hand; or maybe he has told the other man that he is holding his gun in his right hand jacket pocket. Whether this is a mugging or simply an argument about an overdue debt or a quarrel about a woman the only man who knows the truth is the scriptwriter, one L.S. Lowry. But the rapt attention of most of the onlookers certainly implies the gravity of the situation; it is easy to be believe that the well-dressed man leaning on the left hand house and the man in front of Number 11 Irk Place are both acting as look outs in case a foot patrolling policeman might be about to materialise. One feels that if this were a black and white photograph it could be a front page picture for a popular evening paper, or a still from a film of the period, although one must favour most strongly a climactic scene from a play. It certainly, to make an execrable pun, shows Lowry at his most playful.
Incidently the year of this picture, 1928, was momentous for Lowry because it saw the emergence of Flake White as his most important pigment, because it was most dominant in terms of the proportion of the canvas it occupied. This picture, apart from its dramatic value, is an important example of Lowry's obsession with that infinitely varied colour.