It’s a big step attempting to put on a tap-dancing show in a small fringe theatre. Size matters, especially when you’re staging a big show-stopping finale.
But David Ball has managed the impossible with his production of Richard Harris’s heart-warming comedy Stepping Out which opened last night in the bijou surroundings of the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley, South London.
This venue is never one to shy away from the ambitious shows but it is still a big ask to shoehorn nine dancers and a pianist into its snug performance space for a big top hat and tails number, complete with flailing canes. It’s not quite 42nd Street.
Harris was encouraged to write Stepping Out after his wife returned from a dance class and pitched the idea as a possible play.
He went along to his local village hall and saw a bunch of misfits and clodhoppers attempting to make sense of a tap class – and Stepping Out was born.
After opening at a minor Surrey theatre in 1984 it went on to be an award-winner and a stalwart of the West End. It’s toured (repeatedly) and is a firm favourite with audiences who can’t get enough of the show.
But if only its writer had fleshed out his characters a bit more.
The show follows a group of seven women and one man, who each have their own reasons for turning up each Thursday night to a beginner’s tap class run by Mavis, a failed professional dancer.
The class has been invited to take part in a big charity show (the organisers have clearly never dropped in on a session) and they must up their game and learn a choreographed routine or be made a laughing stock.
What lets the play down is that we only ever learn tantalising snippets about this motley bunch while having to sit through endless repeats of dance class scenes where everyone moves to their own eclectic rhythm.
You yearn to learn more about these disappointed, dejected and disillusioned souls, who all have the potential to be fascinating.
I slipped into a preview of Stepping Out earlier this week so the show was still finding its feet.
However, the cast were showing huge potential even if, like the show itself, they needed to refine their choreography, bring out their characters’ personalities and improve their comic timing. Some of the funnier lines were falling flat because of their delivery.
There were also gaps in the flow of the story. Bookish Andy (Emily Sitch), always swathed in clothes to hide her husband’s physical abuse, wasn’t seen with any obvious injuries yet there’s a line about her coping with a sprained wrist.
Monica Leighton’s Rose spends the first act in a bad wig yet we’re never told why and the quiet nurse, Lynne (Gabrielle Sabel) is rather a spare part.
Jessica Brady as the rough diamond, Sylvia, steals most of the best lines. Sylvia is curvaceous, gum chewing and lives with husband Terry who walks a fine line between law-abiding and diddling the social security.
There’s a whole play just in this woman and Jessica makes the most of Sylvia’s earthiness, her self-deprecation and bluntness.
Her nemesis is the terribly posh, Vera, (a well observed turn by Helen Jeckells) who joins the class to find friendship and comes equipped with cleaning kit to give the loos a good scrub in-between tap drills.
But no matter how hard she tries Vera is never going to be one of the girls. She follows Sylvia around with a bucket to collect her discarded gum and puts her dainty, designer clad, foot in it by making comments about Sylvia’s ample size or Andy’s refusal to strip.
Everyone in the group has a story to tell. However, as much as I love tap dancing, there’s only so many times you can watch this hapless lot struggle to learn a routine.
What do we really know about awkward, uncoordinated Dorothy (a lovely turn by Ceris Hines) who rides a childish looking bike and repeats the end of other people’s sentences? Or the shy, inhibited Geoffrey (Sean McDowell) who took up tap following the death of his wife?
Christina Meehan shines as Mavis, who is doing her best to remain upbeat despite the lifestyle change and unexpected shock news.
Teachers of any sort of adult class, be it dance, pottery or cookery, must have to bite their tongues sometimes at the ineptitude of their students and Mavis is politeness personified – most of the time.
Stepping Out runs at the Brockley Jack until July 7.
Review. David Ball's production of Stepping Out taps into our love of dance and comedy but Richard Harris's characters need fleshing out and some dance class scenes could be dropped.