As a play ‘Stepping Out’ by Richard Harris is a delight – which is the main reason it has proved so enduring since the first production won the Evening Standard Comedy of the Year Award in 1984. Audiences at Wellington Theatre Company’s production of the play will share the delight of thousands who have enjoyed productions since then – including those in London’s West End and on Broadway – and by non-professional companies.
The plot follows a group of ill-assorted women and a single man who attend weekly tap lessons led by a former professional dancer in a church hall. As the drama unfolds the characters’ different backgrounds and personalities are revealed and their interpersonal relationships explored. The range of motives for each one attending the class, their individual aspirations and frustrations, are laid bare as they grapple with the demands of both dance and their own inadequacies. The tension is racked up when they are invited to perform before an audience in a charity event and have to take on more complex choreography and demands.
As a cast, the actors must both dance very well (at the end) and, in general, very badly at the beginning. They must also be convincing in their presentation of diverse characters whom we all recognise from our own experience of clubs and courses for it is the recognition of human foibles, virtues and vices that drives the entertainment value for the audience.
Director Tracey Hamilton is an experienced teacher, choreographer and performer and has directed the play previously at the Barnfield Theatre, Exeter. Her production for Wellington Theatre Company has the necessary pace and coherence and makes excellent and varied use of a limited stage space. Having the audience raised on the Arts Centre stage and the actors on ground level makes perfect sense. Ensemble scenes are credible both visually and in vocal tone and the final denouement is delightful – colourful, stylish and convincing in being earnestly imperfect. The tempo is maintained throughout and the shading of different scenes – particularly those that expose friction – is precise.
Performances from an experienced WAA cast – and a late addition recruit from Exeter who stepped in at short notice – present a strong sense of character types explored in the text – and from which most of the dynamic comes.
Cheryl Keith-Hill as tap teacher Mavis is brisk, aloof and appropriately schoolmarmy. When her dysfunctional pupils threaten to wreak chaos in her class she conveys a sense of barely controlled frustration. A glimpse of her anguished personal life is revealed only in one moment of despair and in her interaction with cantankerous pianist Glenda, played beautifully by Frances Walker. Glenda’s care of Mavis in her blunt, stoical compassion provides important depth to this relationship.
Rebecca Beard’s characterisation of bumptious Sylvia is appropriately saucy, busty, cheerful and larger-than-life. She doesn’t tap dance well – and doesn’t care. She’s earnest but incompetent – and thick-skinned too. Her hearty disregard of etiquette and decorum are pitch-perfect and her alliance with good-hearted, inept Rose, played by Sarah Washington, is neat and frequently very – if indelicately – funny.
Mary Lewis provides the role of Vera with the physical mannerisms of a pseudo-posh show-off – but how else could she carry off appearing in a silver lurex cat-suit? Mary joins the rest of the females in the cast in deserving accolades for bravely donning tight-fitting dancewear with no discernible sense of discomfort. Silvey Webber (the late replacement) is clearly a very relaxed performer and her portrayal of eager, serious and compassionate Lynn is watchable, consistent and credible.
Penny Bradnum shines as anxious Dorothy and manages to steal scenes with sneezes. Her performance is genuine and very convincing, being played as sincere rather than for farcical effect. Charlie Hughes’ Maxine is flashy and confident, a character almost totally self-absorbed. She makes good use of the stage’s ‘fourth wall ‘ as a mirror to convey her self-regard.
Hannah Green is simply remarkable as Andy. At odds with the rest of the group in being frumpish, self-conscious, timid, anxious and seriously unhappy, Hannah conveys the role’s neurotic instability in a touching, nuanced performance. With a little more emphasis and subtlety, the anguish of her rejection by Martin Stepney’s Geoffrey might have been seriously moving. As it is, Geoffrey appears somewhat oblivious to her overtures which somewhat misses the point of this interplay. In other respects, Martin Stepney presents the role as a small boy relishing the comfort of large women.
The whole cast should be applauded for grappling with the demands of tap-dancing so enthusiastically. It is only in the final scenes that the outcome of hours of effort is revealed. In their respective roles the cast don’t dance perfectly but they do dance well – and that’s the point. The characters in the play have strived and struggled with their own foibles and inadequacies and, in the end, triumphed. They form a unit in which their shapes and differences – both physical and personal – are merged and they are in time with one another. Ultimately, this is the ‘message’ of this production and one which the whole production team conveys. It also looks utterly convincing in costuming – as WAA productions always do.
The play will undoubtedly entertain. It is genuinely funny, contains serious elements but not enough to make it unduly cerebral and leaves the audience with a sense of well-being in sharing an intrinsically human story, not remote from their own, in drama. This production deserves full houses for the whole of its run.
Performances are on Wednesday 30 March, Thursday 31st March, Friday 1 April and Saturday 2 April at 7.30pm with a matinee on Saturday at 2.30pm. All performances at Wellington Arts Centre, Eight Acre Lane, Wellington. Tickets from Odette’s Tearoom, 27 High Street Wellington, online from the Wellington Arts Centre website or call 0844 997 9000.