BWW Review: STEPPING OUT, Vaudeville Theatre
Never mind Stepping Out - the real wonder of this production is Anna-Jane Casey stepping in for the injured Tamzin Outhwaite at such short notice. It's a plot twist worthy of the backstage shenanigans in Richard Harris's genial 1984 play about the members of a weekly tap class, and Casey's superb turn - and smooth integration into the ensemble - equally in keeping with its triumphant community spirit.
Harris's work does, however, pose tonal challenges for its director (here Maria Friedman, delivering a vibrant, dexterous version), falling as it does somewhere between grounded drama and broad workplace sitcom. In the tradition of the latter, information about the group's home lives is doled out between shuffle ball changes, but, lacking multiple TV episodes, Harris short-changes some and takes jarring shortcuts with others; a few stereotypes remain woefully unchallenged, and one scene might as well be called The Great Big Exposition Dump.
That's uncomfortable treatment for more serious subject matter, such as an abrupt domestic abuse subplot and unwanted pregnancy, but works decently enough for the overriding theme: that this class is a place of refuge or therapy, where the women (and sole bloke Geoffrey) can put themselves first for a change and escape the demands of employers, children, husbands and parents.
On the lighter side, Robert Jones's design is gleefully Eighties-tastic: a parade of shoulder pads, head bands, animal print, rubik's cube jumpers, bouffant 'dos, and enough leg warmers to fill a Jane Fonda video. Jones also provides an effectively dingy north London church hall, whose uninspiring environs the class is trying to transcend.
That they don't entirely is part of the appeal: these are keen but clod-hopping amateur hoofers, some unable to tell left from right, others defeated by the introduction of props. Yet we do get a Strictly-like "journey", as their teacher prepares them for a performance in a charity show (spot-on, witty choreography from Tim Jackson). Familiar, yes, but seeing their gradual improvement is undoubtedly cheering, and something as simple as the mastery of a hat becomes a well-earned, punch-the-air moment.
Though recently introduced, Casey's performance as teacher Mavis actually feels the most developed. She's a crisply economic actress, swiftly conveying a troubled relationship and the mixed feelings of a former pro dancer finding joy in her pupils while mourning her unsuccessful career. Frustration in the face of student squabbling, breaking through her calm authority, is all too believable, while a flash of former glory in a dreamlike solo is richly and poignantly expressive.
Amanda Holden's performance is more on the cartoonish side, but she clearly has great fun with the Victoria Wood-esque eccentric Vera (in fact played by Julie Walters in the film adaptation) - a tidying obsessive, interfering trophy wife whose elaborate wardrobe, tactless interrogation and proud boasts of middle-class luxury mask loneliness and insecurity.
As worldly, impish Maxine, Tracy-Ann Oberman gets - and brilliantly delivers - most of the best lines (of a recommended play that wasn't to her taste, she quips "We didn't even understand the interval"), and also communicates frustration with a delinquent stepson. Sandra Marvin's Rose has comparatively little to do, but she proves a good partner-in-crime.
If Andy's domestic situation needs more delicate handling, Lesley Vickerage is still compelling as she demonstrates its effects: the brittle repression and a powerful breaking point. Dominic Rowan is stealthily hilarious as softly-spoken, obliging Geoffrey, whose earnest but gawky dancing provides excellent opportunities for physical comedy.
There are lovely turns, too, from Nicola Stephenson as perennially stressed Dorothy, Natalie Casey as gobby Sylvia, Jessica-Alice McCluskey (making a promising professional debut) as dedicated nurse Lynne, and Judith Barker as the grouchy pianist. Together, they form a family - equal parts endearing and maddening.
There are certainly times when the sketchy writing frustrates; Harris's warm paean to distinctly female frankness (sorry, Geoffrey) and supportive friendship would be more effective if expressed through fully-fledged characters and drama with real depth. But this Calendar Girls-meets-Chorus Line piece is inarguably successful as toe-tapping, big-hearted entertainment, and should join Strictly in getting Britain's dance classes packed out.
Photo credit: Ray Burmiston