THEY have done it again. Anything I have ever seen by The Swan’s own company of actors has been at the top of any standard you may choose to measure it by.
Even if you know nothing about theatre, and would not usually dream of spending any time in one, I would urge anyone to get a ticket for anything that The Swan produces, something that is becoming harder as their reputation for high quality drama spreads locally, as the sold out production of Stepping Out has proved this week.
Stepping Out has the same warm, fuzzy feeling about it as such films as The Full Monty, Brassed Off, and Calendar Girls, with groups of very different people drawn together in some common cause, each with their own personal story, each with their very carefully drawn character, and usually with some dramatic hitch that almost prevents them achieving their aim, but of course the ending is usually happy, as we breathe a sigh of relief, applaud loudly, and all go home smiling. It is no surprise that all of the above films have also been adapted for the stage, and in the case of Stepping Out, the reverse has happened, with great success for Liza Minelli and Julie Walters on screen.
These stories of everyday dilemmas will only work, however, when played with a truth and honesty that draws us into the tale, forces us to sympathise with at least one, and in many cases most, of the characters, and leave no weak spot in cast, set, costume or crew to allow us to unsuspend our disbelief.
Director and choerographer Sheila Driver has cast an amazing group of extremely talented actors, some of whom have worked before at The Swan, many of whom are new to the theatre, but every single one of them is completely believable and totally convincing in their role. For the final number we even saw how they had been drilled to perfection as they tap danced to Sing Sing Sing with every bit as much accuracy of timing and position as any local musical theatre group, and many professional ones too. All of this after we watched them steadily grow in confidence as a group and in their dancing abilities.
There was not a single weakness on show, from the accurate portrayal of a “dingy church hall” complete with aged photograph of the Queen, a wonderfully evocative and robust parquet floor which meant that the taps sounded well, a real, and properly jingly, piano, played for the most in real time by Louise Thomas, in character as the indomitable Mrs Fraser (who also joined in the final dance), costumes that properly matched the 1980s, including a Cats top and a Frankie Says Relax tee shirt, and which were suitably flexible to allow for quick changes, and hairstyles which took us all back over thirty years.
Kayleigh Partt, as dance teacher Mavis, showed great variety of emotion, from the strong leader to the vulnerable young mother-to-be, collapsing under the stress of finding herself pregnant. Megan Taylor as Lynne and Rachel Butcher as Rose each brought great subtlety to their roles, Butler with a gentle Irish accent which I had assumed was her own until I read the programme notes. Karen Pankhust as Vera was every bit the Penelope Keith as she snootily bought more and more exotic and expensive dancewear, and the great Tanya Ogden smouldered just the right level below the surface as the shy Andy. Chrissie Mumford played gentle jealousy to perfection as Maxine, one of the only group members with any previous experience, and therefore a threat to Mavis. In the only male role, Shaun Driver wonderfully underplayed Geoffrey, including some extremely slick dance moves and some great physical comedy. The other two roles, slightly dopey Dorothy and woman of the world Sylvia were probably the hardest roles to get right. They could so easily have slipped into caricature, but Angie Best brought reality to the former, with a genuine concern when accused of getting someone into trouble, and Holly Robson as the latter was reminiscent of Olivia Coleman in her earlier character and comic roles on radio and television, showing a deep vulnerability and insecurity as well as her brash and bolshy side.
This review is a little longer than some, as it would not have been fair to leave anyone out, they are such a wonderful ensemble, and I hope they all return to the Swan and other local theatres again and again, as I certainly intend to. This was yet another hit, of the same amazingly high standard that I now expect, and I look forward to anything they decide to do in future.