After a recent run of musical revivals (The Baker’s Wife, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) Stepping Out is something of a gear change for the intimate Southwark venue. David Ball’s production has a slower, gentler pace in this cosy comedy which brings together a group of women (and one man) whose ambitions lie far away from the razzle dazzle of the West End.
Mavis (Barbara King), a former chorus girl, teaches a weekly tap class to a varied bunch of social climbers, hardworking mums and wallflowers, aided by a curmudgeon of a pianist. With their first public performance looming, the group descends into disarray against a backdrop of instant coffee and a step-ball-changes. Will they pull together to pull it off?
Strangely, no designer is credited, but the Union is downsized perfectly (transformed not quite being the right word) into the grotty church hall, all beige paint and mismatched chairs. You can almost smell the damp – and quite rightly. For anyone who’s ever been involved in amateur theatre or dance, Stepping Out hits the mark every time. The cast, of all shapes and sizes, deliver a warmly comic evening which unashamedly piles on the schmaltz but still packs a real emotional punch.
Barbara King (herself a West End leading lady) brings the right blend of resilience and warmth to Mavis, struggling to keep body and soul together. Ruth Evans' tight-lipped accompanist makes a dry foil, moralising over the girls with her nose buried in a glossy mag. Helen Jeckells’ Vera, straight of back and high of hair, hints at the darkness behind an effusive fixed grin, while Helen Terry’s Andy is the opposite – withdrawn and introspective, but with an equally dark secret. Wicked alumnus Nadine Cox shows considerable acting chops as business woman and harassed mum Maxine in what is a uniformly strong ensemble.
As comfy as a pair of old tap shoes, Stepping Out has heart, truth and boundless energy and if there’s a more joyous final ten minutes on the London stage I’ll don a leotard and tap dance through Trafalgar Square. The perfect pre- Christmas treat.
- Dan Usztan