TOP HATS AND TALES
A nice gag in Richard Harris’ 1983 play comes in some desultory chat between the ladies of the tap-dancing class. Referring to a play one of them has recommended to another the victim snaps “We didn’t even understand the interval”.
No such problem faces audiences at the Vaudeville, as Maria Friedman’s loving redirection of this gentle classic comedy poses no questions of understanding. We merely spend a couple of hours (plus wholly comprehensible interval) in the company of seven women and a lone man , amateurishly learning tap at evening class with their teacher Mavis and a grumpy middle-aged pianist. It has conflict and a dénouement, because they are preparing for a display in which mere competence is the best that can be hoped for. But it doesn’t sizzle or shock. Its heartbeat is steady.
Which is fine. Anna-Jane Casey, the most distinguished of the dancers in life as well as the show, is standing in as Mavis the leader before Tamzin Outhwaite returns from injury on 1 April, and is excellent: not least in the second act when she loses her temper (and something else). She also dazzles in a brief solo moment under dreamy lights, reminding us that this is, like many evening-class teachers, an erstwhile professional who didn’t make it out of the chorus. Amanda Holden, whose initiative this Theatre Royal Bath production originally was, is perfect as Vera, the upmarket and interfering new member – I have been enjoying watching this performer’s funny-bones develop ever more beautifully from Shrek to Cinderella. And the ensemble give us a nice mixture of shapes, incompetences (until the big brilliant finale) and streaks of personal pain. Nicola Stephenson’s wounded, anxious DSS assistant Dorothy, Sandra Marvin’s rumbustious Rose with bust-bounce problems, and Lesley Vickerage as the tense troubled Andy are particularly good. The gruff , easily-offended Irving-Berlin fan and piano-basher Mrs Fraser is the splendid Judith Barker, who twice wins exit-rounds of applause. The lone man (how rarely one writes that) is Dominic Rowan as Geoffrey: a lonely City insurance man struggling manfully with cane , hat, box-step and female teasing.
The first act is unquestionably slow, for all that the peerless Friedman direction can do with it; the second picks up humour and, gradually and with a discretion baffling until you remember it is a 34 year old play, reveals that it is not only hoofing and body image that make life tricky for these women There are some bad marriages in the background, a termination, loneliness, money worries, and the hint of a really sinister husband-and-stepdaughter relationship. A more recent play would have hammered these home harder. But the sheer enjoyableness of this sweet-hearted play and the hopefulness of the final dance, make it a more than agreeable evening.
By the way my daughter, who is cleverer than me, points out that the nearest thing it reminds her of is the achingly hip “Circle Mirror Transformation” of the Royal Court’s outreach- East-London production a couple of years ago, where participants in a drama-therapy group gradually reveal themselves . So I looked up what I wrote about that play, and it was thus:
‘“”You expect a climax, a comeuppance dreadful but dramatically inevitable. But then, overcome by their own tastefulness, such plays unsportingly refuse to provide any such thing. They peter out in a thoughtful headshake. Just like real life.”
Well, at least Stepping out doesn’t peter out thoughtfully but rises to a double dose of barnstorming, top-hole good old fashioned tapping-up-a-storm. A footshake, not a headshake. So I”ll just about give it a fourth mouse and a hug.
Box Office: 0330 333 4814 to 17 June