Writer: Richard Harris
Director: Paul Robinson
Designer: Helen Coyston
Music/Sound: Simon Slater
Choreographer: Erin Carter
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
35 years on from its first performance and with productions popping up all over the world on a weekly basis, Stepping Out has, Paul Robinson believes, never been staged in the round before. That engenders an immediacy of communication with the audience and also an extra touch of honesty – no hiding or faking!
Richard Harris’ play is an early example of a type that has since become rather formulaic: a group of people are no good at something, weeks or months pass as they work on this activity, bonding and falling out and revealing their characters, then they take on a major challenge at the thing they were no good at – and do ever so well!
However, Harris is too clever and humane to let the fantasy element run riot. The group of women (and one man) attending a tap dance class in a church hall don’t triumph in a national competition or anything, they simply do well in a local charity gala. And, to give the slickly exuberant dance finale that the play requires, Harris moves from the final dress rehearsal (very lively, good fun, not error-free) via a brief sweetly comic interlude into the group performing immaculately at next year’s event. Clever!
In a production set in the early 1980s, but moved a fair bit North from London, Paul Robinson and choreographer Erin Carter pitch the level of expertise – and inexpertise! – perfectly from the start. There are sufficient capable dancers to give us charming interludes and hint at the prospect of success alongside enough clumsy, nervous and distressed souls to entertain with their disasters. And, steadily, the standard improves, not dramatically, but noticeably.
The music and movement (including between-scenes bursts of swing bands) keep the feel-good factor high while the character interaction, though often comic, increasingly exposes a darker edge, whether in friction between the women or by our increasing knowledge of their lives outside the dance class. Their menfolk come out of it badly: plagued with lazy, neglectful or abusive men, they escape to the dance class. Even Geoffrey (David McKechnie) may be escaping from an abusive male for all we know: as he points out, nobody knows anything about him. Some characters such as motor-mouth Sylvia (Claire Eden) tell all instantly, some like down-trodden Andy (Alix Dunmore)
conceal everything in a frosty sense of inadequacy until provoked into an intensely emotional outburst. Harris cunningly doesn’t reveal all – just like in life. Surely Andy’s wrist in plaster isn’t just a sprain, but what exactly happened? And who did tell on Sylvia’s husband working while claiming the dole?
Joanne Heywood (Mavis) is a warmly reassuring presence as the dance teacher, her own disappointments only hinted at, until she, too, hits a crisis point; Maxine (an exuberant Suzanne Procter) is another energetically concealing disillusionment; Mrs Fraser, the dour rehearsal pianist, is more of a caricature than the other characters, but Fenella Norman is great value; Gemma Page gets the laughs from the grossly snobbish Vera, obsessed with cleanness and order, without over-playing the comedy; and Natasha Calland (Lynne), Sarah Pearman (Dorothy) and Angela Phinnimore (Rose) complete an excellent ensemble.
Runs until August 3, 2019 | Image: Tony Bartholomew