Stepping Out

Richard Harris
Theatre Royal Bath Productions and the James Grant Group
Chichester Festival Theatre

Amanda Holden is billed as starring in this show, but this is really very much an ensemble piece with every character equally important.

Ostensibly, we are watching eight women and one man at a beginners' tap dancing class as it meets each week in the local church hall with the pupils struggling to learn the steps. The fact that these performers are actors, and not specifically trained in dance, gives some sort of authenticity to their performance as they trip over their own feet and get everything wrong, slowly improving as the classes continue.

This in itself is quite entertaining, but it’s when we gradually get to know the characters as they interact and learn a little of their outside lives and why they are here that the play becomes really interesting.

The reasons are many and very true to life. Andy (Rose Keegan) is escaping from an abusive husband, Maxine (Tracy Ann Obermann) to get away from ‘wonder boy’ stepson. Dominic Rowan’s Geoffrey, taking a break from work, bumbles along amiably, while Holden’s Vera (rather overplayed in my opinion making it less believable) tries to pretend that it’s perfectly all right for her husband to spend all his spare time with his step daughter leaving his wife to her own devices.

The comedy is in the banter between them all, with a special brand from Judith Barker as the pianist Mrs Fraser, a lady who speaks her mind. Taking umbrage at one of Vera’s tactless comments, she stumps off stage, to return slightly inebriated and determined to show off her musical accomplishments. Anyone remember the children’s audio animation of Sparky and his Magic Piano? That is the beautiful and intricate music which soars through the theatre, giving a clue to the accomplishments of the piano.

The women unburden their troubles onto each other—there is a sisterhood of support and friendship—but not all is sweetness and light. Shy Andy takes a shine to Geoffrey who is too shy (or uninterested) to respond. Gum-chewing Sylvia (Angela Griffin) accuses Dorothy (Nicola Stephenson) of reporting her husband for claiming benefits while working and snobbish Vera supplies most of the comedy, outdoing Hyacinth Bucket on every front with her obsessive-compulsive cleaning and tidying and expensive but often unsuitable outfits.

There are sections of the performance where the action freezes as if a photograph has been taken, and the light changes and dims as, in one instance, Tamzin Outhwaite as teacher Mavis dances beautifully and purely for her own enjoyment until discovered by an admiring Rose (Sandra Marvin), a full busted, full-of-life, joyously exuberant West Indian. The final pupil is Jessica-Alice McCluskey as Lynne who just wants to lose weight and regain confidence.

The idea of putting on a show for a local charity concert sends them into a spin, but Mavis (with a little assistance from director Maria Friedman) pulls them all together—insisting that she is the one in charge—and they finally manage the concert, even (a year later) returning "by popular demand" in glitzy tights and top hats and haven’t they learnt a lot? A great finish to a very entertaining musical comedy.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor