We all love a good underdog story, so it’s no surprise that Richard Harris’ 1984 comedy Stepping Out continues to pull in audiences over 30 years after its first performance. Written after observing the various interesting characters at his wife’s weekly dance class, the play is a charming, feel-good story about friendship and perseverance against seemingly impossible odds that ultimately proves impossible to resist.
In a small North London community hall, we’re introduced to tap teacher Mavis, pianist Mrs Fraser, and eight enthusiastic but rather rhythmically challenged students. They’re very different characters, who constantly misunderstand and antagonise each other, to the point where you have to wonder why they’d all – Mavis and Mrs Fraser included – put themselves through it every week. It quickly becomes obvious, however, that the class means a huge amount to all of them, even the ones who appear to have life all worked out.
While some of the characters feature more prominently than others – among them shy, nervous Andy (Emily Sitch), for whom the class is the only time she gets to herself all week, token male Geoffrey (Sean McDowell), whose wife recently passed away, and newest member Vera (Helen Jeckells), who can’t stop cleaning and starts every sentence with “I’m not being funny or anything…” – we do get to know all of them just well enough that by the end of the show, we’re rooting for the whole group to succeed (even Vera). And yet at the same time there’s still so much we don’t know; the play’s finale somehow succeeds in bringing the story to a satisfying close while at the same time leaving us with a frustrating number of loose ends about every character.
The small venue for this production, directed and choreographed by David Ball, mostly works well, with the cramped conditions on stage only adding to the chaos each time the class attempts a routine. Such is the level of noise and general incompetence, in fact, that by the time Mavis finally, inevitably snaps, the audience is right there with her (and possibly wondering what took her so long). In a play where the most memorable performances are the funniest – Ceris Hine’s permanently anxious Dorothy, Jessica Brady’s straight-talking Sylvia and Harriet Earle’s eccentric Mrs Fraser, to name a few – it’s Christina Meehan as Mavis who leaves the deepest impression. Her passion for her art, her motherly affection for her students, and her growing frustration at their inability to follow simple instructions are all completely believable, and there are moments when she’s teaching that it really does feel like we’re watching a tap class rather than a play.
Light and frothy it may be, but there’s something about Stepping Out that strikes a chord and may even bring a tear to the eye. Anyone who’s ever felt lonely, or unloved, or worried that they’re not good/clever/pretty/talented enough, will be able to relate to at least one of the characters, and the play is a great reminder that sometimes it’s possible to find companionship and support where we least expect it. But all that aside, it’s also great entertainment – and as Mavis herself would say, as long as we’re enjoying ourselves, that’s the most important thing.
Stepping Out is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 7th July.
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