Richard Harris’ Stepping Out, is a safe choice as season opener at Salisbury Playhouse, and brimming full of broad comedy, pathos, dodgy dancing and a real feel-good finale, is a sure fire crowd pleaser.
Notably spawning a 1991 movie, staring Hollywood legend Liza Minnelli, relocating the action from a church hall in north London to the outer-suburbs of New York City, and a less successful stage musical version in the late 1990s, this production returns to the original concept, of a play with music.
One night a week seven ladies, and one man, attend Mavis Turner’s tap classes to escape their normal humdrum lives and to kick up their heels, rehearsing and working towards their own personal goals, and to the looming end of term charity show.
Where most of the characters are identifiably stereotypes, and in general the humour is broad, Stepping Out brilliantly blends huge belly laughs and slapstick in the dance class sequences, with brief and unexpected flashes of pathos, with glimpses of the troubles, tragedies and deficiencies that lead each, including dance teacher Mavis herself, to lose themselves in the dance. These brief snapshots of back story make the characters real and reach out so that the audience feels a part not only of their personal journeys but their ultimate triumph. Seldom can I remember in a play that explores the frailty of human nature such a rewarding pay-off and life affirming denouement.
Adam Penford directs a top-notch cast, and manages to bring out the humanity without over egging the sentimentality. Only occasionally do the more intimate exchanges between characters get lost on designer Matthew Wright’s superb but vast church hall setting. Together with lighting director Richard Howell, Penfold cleverly spotlights individual characters during the many scene change sequences, making best use of an otherwise blacked out stage, and developing the characters beyond what is on the written page.
Choreographer Andrew Wright does a fine job keeping the dance classes believable, and is allowed to show off his skills to the full in the two big routines at the end of the show.
Each of the ten strong cast has their moment in the spotlight, most especially Rachel Stanley, as Mavis, who gets to steal Liza Minnelli’s big show stopping number from the film, and does not waste the opportunity to shine. Elizabeth Power makes a delightful dragon as Mrs Fraser, and Louise Plowright (as brassy Maxine), Kelly Price (snobbish hygiene freak Vera), and delightfully dithering and awkward Adrian Gove (lone male Geoffrey) lead an excellent ensemble.
Certain to swell the ranks of dance classes all around Salisbury, Stepping Out has a universal and enduring appeal and a super-satisfying ending so cannot fail to please.
Stepping Out is on at Salisbury Playhouse until Saturday 6 October.