Stepping Out was a hit for Richard Harris when it first premiered in 1984 and then again when it opened on Broadway in 1987, when Cherry Jones, currently lighting up the West End in A Glass Menagerie, was in the cast. A 1991 film version starred Liza Minnelli and Julie Walters. It’s a slight piece, and time has not been kind to it. 2017 is a long way away from 1984 and although there might be life in the old dog yet, this production of Stepping Out flounders more than it taps into entertainment and warmth. Stepping Out mostly just makes you want to step out of the theatre and back into the world. Sadly.
Amanda Holden apparently saw the 1991 film of Stepping Out and thought it would be an ideal vehicle for her and some of her forty-something besties. She gathered together a core group and pitched the idea to her agents – and, some months later, after a tour of the UK, that production of Richard Harris’ play has arrived at the Vaudeville Theatre where it opened tonight.
Along the way, Tamsin Outhwaite, one of Holden’s core group, sustained injury and needed to be temporarily replaced. Such is the vagary of live theatre – anything can happen and often does. But, watching this production, directed by Maria Friedman, one can’t but wonder how much better it might have been had Outhwaite been present. One of the things she can be relied upon to bring to an on stage appearance is heart and a plucky sense of spirited commitment. She plays the underdog, the one that might against all odds win best prize at the Show, with consummate ease.
One of the central characters in Stepping Out is Mavis, a former West End chorus girl who now struggled to make ends meet and who has a dubious relationship with a difficult, unseen man who might or might not be the sort to steal bicycles. She runs a tap dance class for an odd assortment of women and one shy man. They squabble and laugh and cry together as they sweat and worry about their tap dancing routines and how they look in the rehearsal room mirror.
The drama is superficial, the characters little more than one-dimensional, and the sensibility more treacle than anything else. It’s lightly humorous and occasionally a belly laugh jolts you into happiness. You should want the Outhwaite underdog, Mavis, to succeed, to have a triumph when her tap routine is given its moment in the spotlight.
Alas, this production creaks much more than it taps.
Nothing about Maria Friedman’s direction reflects the care and delicate insightfulness she brought to Merrily We Roll Along, but then, Stepping Out is not that crisp a work. It may have been unusual and, perhaps, even ground-breaking in 1984, especially as a vehicle for a bunch of talented women, but in 2017 it seems like an old childhood toy – faded, rusty, near useless, but redolent of nostalgia. In the shadow of the infinitely better Calendar Girls, and its musical sibling, The Girls, Stepping Out seems more Agnes Gooch than Mame.
Watching this cast, some extremely talented, go through their paces, struggle with the dialogue and the enormity of making these characters seem fresh and real somehow, one wonders if anyone could really revive Stepping Out now and make it really soar. It seems very much a museum piece, and a cobwebby one at that.
Dominic Rowan makes the most of the comic opportunities offered by the shy, changes-behind-a-towel, Geoffrey, the stallion in the pack of tapping femme fatales. He has an excellent line in raised eyebrow irritation and can make a glance at a discarded sandwich speak volumes.
Judith Barker is delicious as the desiccated pianist, Mrs Fraser, a woman whose firm ideas about tempi match her fearsome devotion to Mavis. Jessica–Alice McCluskey is bright and engaging as the talented dancing Nurse, Lynne, who has the only moment of true emotion in Act One when thinking about one of “her ladies” who died on her ward earlier in her day.
Holden is slight and reasonably engaging as Vera, the posh woman with no idea of her social inadequacies and her ability to rub people the wrong way without trying. She seems to really miss the presence of Outhwaite whose performance as Mavis naturally would anchor and balance Vera’s extremes. Holden does manage to find her feet with Lesley Vickerage’s angsty I’ve-got-a-terrible-secret Andy, she who likes to cover herself up for reasons which only the completely inattentive would not have seen coming from almost her first words.
It falls to Tracy-Ann Oberman , as sassy chancer, Maxine, to provide the brooding force of the company, a role Oberman attacks with gusto. She is fresh, funny and thoroughly faded, all at once, with a wonderfully dry line in self-deprecation. She is irresistible.
So too is Sandra Marvin’s Rose, but for entirely different reasons. Marvin gorges herself on the character and the rewards are worth it. Lusty, full of life and vigour, Oberman and Marvin provide the spine of characterful interest.
There is too much over or underplaying elsewhere; some performances make no dent at all. Natalie Casey overeggs every moment; Nicola Stephenson underplays almost every moment. This results in contrast, confusion – but not much in the way of character.
The only way Stepping Out can work is if the tapestry of women (and one man) is bright, energised and detailed – and real. Real people really learning to tap, to strive to do something for themselves and for each other.
At £60 a ticket, Friedman delivers an almost pantomime version of Harris’ play. Perhaps she is smart to do so in 2017. Perhaps when Outhwaite returns to the company, and the core team Holden envisaged as the foundation for the production is restored, this will be a more memorable experience.
Until then, though, troubles can be better tapped away elsewhere than at the Vaudeville.