A weekly evening class in a north London church hall. Seven ladies and one gauche male are just about getting to grips with the basics of tap dancing when they are faced with an alarming challenge: their teacher has arranged for them to perform a routine at a glitzy charity gala.
Richard Harris’s comedy drama Stepping Out, currently playing at the Mill at Sonning, could make a farce out of this scenario, written during the 1980s evening class boom. After all, what could be more amusing than seeing a bunch of inept adults of varying shapes and sizes trying to step their way through stomps, tap springs, buffaloes and cramp rolls (all tapping terms, incidentally!)?
True, there was much bumping into each other, tripping over feet, dropping canes – and all that was very funny, particularly accompanied by lots of witty one-liners. But instead of a continual stream of inane pratfalls, this play focuses on the wannabe tappers themselves and why they are all turning up to the classes in the first place.
Directed by Sally Hughes and choreographed by Joseph Pitcher, the excellent ensemble cast includes Michelle Morris as confident brassy Maxine, Ruth Pownall as fresh-faced nurse Lynne and Belinda Carroll, a birdlike and jumpy Dorothy. Janine Leigh is great as lippy, overweight gum-chewing Sylvia while Yvonne Newman is a larger-than-life Rose. Uncoordinated and introverted Andy gets good treatment from Angela Sims. Elizabeth Elvin as snobby, yet tarty, Vera, delivers the best lines and put-downs, particularly in her role as self-appointed toilet cleaner. Richard Gibson is good as shy and ineffectual ‘token male’ Geoffrey.
They are led by instructor Mavis (Amber Edlin), a former professional dancer who failed to make the big time, along with a well-observed curmudgeonly accompanist Mrs Frazer (Elizabeth Power). Great performances from all.
The play really takes off in the second act when tantalising glimpses of each character’s backstory emerge and it becomes clear that each carries some emotional baggage. The weekly session are punctuated with outbursts of anger, irritation, frustration, stand-up arguments and tears, all hinting at unresolved issues.
But, boosted by burgeoning friendship, understanding and support, all personal demons are put on the back burner as the charity gig draws near. Like true pros, our bunch of misfits reveal their true colours in a predictable but nonetheless, show-stopping finale. Heartwarming stuff. A great evening’s entertainment.
Runs till January 16th.