AS I said when reviewing the same play at the Swan in Yeovil earlier this year, Stepping Out is one of those plucky British tales where ordinary people with very real lives have to all work together to achieve a common goal. It is one of the earliest examples, written well before The Full Monty, Brassed Off and Calendar Girls, in 1984, and it shows little sign of aging, as we will always relate to the human stories of the women (and one man) in the weekly dance class at the local church hall as they learn their routines for the big local variety show.
This is a big production, chock full of actors that people will know from TV and West End experience, and it is on a short tour of the South before taking up residence at the Vaudeville Theatre on London’s Strand in March next year. Having seen what I would consider to be a definitive production in Yeovil, with actors who had nothing to prove apart from their skill at portraying completely believable characters, this new cast of people that I have been watching on TV for many years were going to have to be quite something to even meet my expectations. I know how well Amanda Holden and Tamzin Outhwaite can dance because I’ve seen them star in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Sweet Charity respectively. I know how well Angela Griffin, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Nicola Stephenson can act, from roles in major continuing dramas, from Brookside to Casualty, Doctor Who, Eastenders and Emmerdale, and the rest of the cast all have good pedigrees in theatre and television. What I needed to see this evening, however, was that same vulnerability and sensitivity that I had seen before, and which the play needs to make it work on every level.
I was not disappointed. Every member of this ensemble takes us on their emotional journey with a depth of character that should make each of them very proud. The famous names mix with other experienced actors to reignite the familiar spark and maintain the warmth that makes us want them to succeed. The spirit of this show is what pulls us in and keeps us glued to seats, hoping that we will all arrive at a happy conclusion together. Despite her prowess in past shows, Outhwaite is every inch the wounded, failed professional who now runs the class each week, with a real sensitivity in the latter scenes. Oberman has just the right level of supposed past knowledge as the only experienced dancer in the group, Holden is probably the most famous cast member, and therefore the right person to play snobbish control freak Vera, just one level of class above all the rest. Stephenson is delightfully, yet still believably, dopey as Dorothy, Griffin a very real down-at-heel but lady-of-the-world Louise, and Dominic Rowan is so wonderfully understated as shy, but lovely, Geoffrey compared with his Henry VIII at the Globe. Rose Keegan, whose distinguished journalist father John lived at Kilmington, is wonderful as the shy but smouldering Andy, and special mention must go to Judith Barker, another recognisable face from television, as the indomitable pianist Mrs Fraser, although it is a shame that she does not play the piano live – surely this could be achieved, on such an otherwise accurate and naturalistic set? Sandra Marvin as Rose and Jessica-Alice McClusky as Lynne are the other two dancers, each with the same realism, truth and attention to detail that shines through the production.
Director Maria Friedman, despite her auspicious stage and recording career, particularly her interpretation of Sondheim, will probably be known to most of the audience as Linda’s mum in Eastenders or even from Casualty, but she brings all of that varied experience to this production, keeping the underlying spirit true and honest, ensuring that we feel what the individual characters feel. She has clearly given tight and precise direction to the cast, ensuring their characters are believable, and we all seem to leave the theatre genuinely happy at the end of the play. I was ready to be disappointed in this production after my experience in Yeovil, but I was pleasantly delighted with it, taking nothing away from the wonderful actors at The Swan, of course. If you enjoy popular theatre, and like to see people you know from the telly live on stage proving they can act, this is for you.