Stepping Out

Richard Harris
Stephen Joseph Theatre
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
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To kick off the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s summer season, director Paul Robinson has chosen to stage the perennially popular comedy Stepping Out. Since its first production in 1984, Richard Harris’s award-winning play has been staged all over the world, even inspiring an ill-fated film starring Liza Minnelli and Julie Walters.

Originally set in London, the action of the play has been relocated to Yorkshire. Once a week, eight strangers (seven women and one man) assemble in a dingy church hall to attend a tap dancing class led by former professional hoofer Mavis (Joanne Heywood). Despite their lack of co-ordination, the students relish their weekly dance class, regarding it as an escape from their complicated private lives.

However, tempers start to fray after Mavis signs them up to perform at a charity event. As the big day approaches, each of the characters succumbs to the pressure, resulting in arguments and the disclosure of long-held secrets.

Stepping Out is often staged in the UK, and it’s not difficult to see why. Not only is the play innately funny (albeit in an old-fashioned way), its feel-good story of underdogs working hard to reach their potential is frankly irresistible, even to the most jaded critics.

However, I have some issues with the play which prevent me from endorsing it wholeheartedly. With so many characters on stage, we don’t get to learn as much about the characters as I would have liked. Harris touches upon a range of serious issues—including bereavement, loneliness and unfulfilled lives—but only in the most cursory way. Towards the end of the play, for example, we learn that one of the characters is being physically abused by her husband, but this revelation doesn’t bear any dramatic fruit.

Despite some misgivings about the play itself, the overall production has many strong qualities. The rehearsal scenes gain immeasurably from being staged in-the-round, allowing us to watch the students’ progress (or lack thereof) from a variety of angles. The two dance numbers at the end of the show, expertly choreographed by Erin Carter, are brilliantly performed and leave the audience dancing out of the theatre. Helen Coyston manages to create the illusion of a church hall without cluttering the stage with the stage. That being said, the profusion of leg warmers, bomber jackets and Pineapple leotards are a constant reminder that we’re back in the 1980s, the decade of bad taste.

The chief joy of the production, however, lies in its spirited ensemble acting. I won’t mention every performer, but I’d like to highlight a few. Joanne Heywood excels as Mavis, the kind but increasingly frazzled teacher, imbuing her with just the right level of warmth and toughness. There are scene-stealing comic turns from Fenella Norman as Mrs Fraser, the cantankerous pianist, and Claire Eden as Sylvia, the brassiest member of the class. Gemma Page is suitably awful as the tactless busybody Vera, and Suzanne Procter brings huge energy and comic pizzazz to Maxine, a shop owner with a big mouth and an even bigger heart.

Reviewer: James Ballands