Richard Harris’ Stepping Out, initially staged in 1984 and adapted for screen in 1991, may be a familiar story to many of the audience who fill the Stephen Joseph Theatre on this rainy Tuesday evening. I imagine I am not alone in remembering Liza Minnelli’s stunning performance as the dance teacher, Mavis, as the 1980s pop classics hum over the speakers. It’s a tone setter. As the audience file in, it does as much as the parquet floor and the cast iron radiators of Helen Coyston’s design work to set us in the world of this 1980s village hall. This show already has a familiar look and feel. I must admit to being sceptical of it working in the round; I am happy to say I am proven wrong.
The play centres around a dance class. The audience look on, as if through the hall’s walls. While I must admit the gold glitter in places was a garish choice of Coyston, I enjoy the feel. We are in the action, we are attending the class, we dance with them, laugh with them, we feel all the tension of Harris’s expertly written dialogue because we are within it. Of course it works in the round! It is an ensemble comedy that we are a part of.
Paul Robinson’s staging takes full advantage of this format. We giggle when Clare Eden’s Sylvia warms her bum over the radiator and inadvertently wiggles it towards the audience. The nods to the presence of theatricality, such as the slightly delayed spotlights and the hats that hurtle towards the edge of stage, bring us into the action. This is a story of which the audience is a part and this is a marvellous way to view comedy. Occasionally, the limitations of the set leave Robinson relying on repetitive staging yet he is self-aware enough to nod at this and laugh. These are, after all, characters set in their ways.
The cast is simply delightful. As an ensemble they work beautifully, dynamically and completely believably. From Natasha Calland’s performance as the adorable ingenue to Suzanne Proctor’s hilarious posturing as the overstated Maxine. Joanne Heywood’s performance as Mavis is moving and nuanced, though at moments lacking energy. That said, Heywood commands the stage and is in turns professional, understanding and feisty. It is her emotional journey that carries the show.
Truly every member of the cast deserves their own review for every character has an inner life that is beautifully performed by each one of them. Special mention should be made, however, for Alix Dunmore as Andi who brims with neurosis every moment. Dunmore seems to vibrate with pathos and humour, delicately breathing life into one of Harris’s most delicately written characters. Also the incomparable Fenella Norman who does more with a glance than lesser actresses could manage with a soliloquy.
All in all, Stepping Out is a brilliant night at the theatre. It is hilarious, but also seething with dramatic tension. This cast alone is a force to be reckoned with. Not a production to be missed.
Stepping Out is playing the Stephen Joseph Theatre until 3 August. For more information and tickets, see the Stephen Joseph Theatre website.