Some three decades after playing the West End and Broadway, ‘Stepping Out’ is making a welcome return to the London stage. Exceptionally well – received the first time around by critics and the public alike, the show also won the Evening Standard’s Comedy Of The Year Award for 1984.

Written by Richard Harris, this gentle piece has a cosy similarity to works like ‘Educating Rita’, ‘Shirley Valentine’, ‘A Different Way Home’, and even Australia’s own ‘Ladies In Black’. (‘Stepping Out’ toured Australia in 1985/86, with a cast that featured Colette Mann, Rowena Wallace, and Nancye Hayes.)

This is a true ensemble piece in every sense of the word.

To his credit, Harris developed a handful of loveable misfits with whom we can all identify. He built a journey around everyday people who for the most part, do their best to work and socialise together. When a new member suddenly joins their fold, she is the proverbial fly in the ointment. Conflict ensues, and that is when the story begins to really take off.

Leading the charge is their instructor, Mavis. She is a former chorus girl, who to make ends meet, wants to build and grow this somewhat unflattering gig. During act one, we get to know each personality and what makes them tick.  Harris displays a wonderful knack for character development, without falling into the trap of having his creations spout conversation only for exposition’s sake.

Act two raises the stakes when Mavis announces to the troupe that she has signed them up to perform at a prestigious charity event. The question being, will they band together in time without looking like total amateurs?

In 1991, the playwright adapted his work to film as a comeback vehicle for Liza Minnelli.

With that big budget transfer, ‘Stepping Out’ was no longer limited to the run down community church hall single set. The location too, was geographically shifted from suburban London to Buffalo, New York. (Interestingly, many of the exteriors were shot in Toronto, Canada).

Several musical numbers were added, and Minnelli’s storyline was greatly expanded as well. Her unsupportive boyfriend, mentioned sight – unseen in the play, became a fully – realised secondary role.

The radical updates came with a cost, however.

Gone was the show’s tight group support, as well as each character’s detailed narrative strand, Meaning, why these individuals really took a weekly tap class in the first place. Perhaps that is the prime reason why the movie, though well – intentioned, completely tanked at the box office.

Having seen the motion picture many times, but never the play, this aspect was a delightful surprise. Teasing us with healthy servings of information from their personal lives, but allowing the audience to fill in some of the more revealing details and think for ourselves, left this reviewer wanting more.

This time around, ‘Stepping Out’ is being billed as a showcase for Amanda Holden, and her name should be a relatively familiar one to Australian audiences. Holden is a judge on the hit reality television series, ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. In ‘Stepping Out’, she hysterically plays against type as a wealthy, meddling snob. (Her part of Vera was played in the film by Julie Walters.).

Part Joanna Lumley’s Patsy from ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ and Patricia Routledge’s Hyacinth Bucket from ‘Keeping Up Appearances’, Holden truly gets under one’s skin with her antics. It is easy to see why the other group members can’t stand Vera, even mocking the woman behind her back.

Other standout performances included:

  • Tracy – Ann Oberman as Maxine, a business owner holding depression at bay with a fun and fancy -free exterior.
  • Judith Barker as Mrs Fraser, the stubborn piano accompanist with a secret drinking problem.
  • Dominic Rowan as Geoffrey, the only man, using the group as a means to cope with his wife’s death from cancer.

On the evening I attended, I learned from an audience member sitting next to me, that his close friend on stage was playing Mavis.  A last minute stand – by, this was Josefina Gabrielle’s very first night going on in the part.  (Gabrielle, it should be noted, played Laurie opposite Hugh Jackman’s Curly in ‘Oklahoma’, staged by London’s National Theatre in 1999.) Had I not been handed this nugget, knowing simply reinforces how disciplined actors need to be, stepping in (no pun intended) at a moment’s notice.

Australia’s Nick Warnford (who toured in ‘The Boy From Oz’) has a featured part late in the show as well.

Overall, the cast worked extremely well together. Though at times flirting with melodrama, ‘Stepping Out’ still felt very convincing. The general consensus from viewers in attendance, was that they knew people who behaved exactly like these characters, too.

In terms of blocking, and perhaps this is why the play works so much more effectively than the film, is that the actors never once acknowledge the audience until the final curtain call.  I don’t mean in terms of breaking the fourth wall, but the front of the stage is actually an imaginary mirror where they work out.

This gives ‘Stepping Out’ one the feeling of watching the play through a microscope.  We can see them, but they can’t see us. Further, smart musical interludes and subtle scenery changes were used to reference time passing.

Directed with pace and heart by Maria Friedman, ‘Stepping Out’ is good value for people who enjoy their musicals shaken, not stirred. The show is playing at the Vaudeville Theatre until June 17.

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