In football, if your star striker is injured, it’s always interesting to see the different dynamic when a player comes off the bench to take their place. The whole shape of the team and their attitude to the match can completely change with the addition of some fresh legs and the same can be said for a team of performers, writes Nicky Sweetland.
Just days before the first preview of Stepping Out at the Vaudeville Theatre, leading lady Tamzin Outhwaite broke her foot and so had to be replaced by stage stalwart Anna-Jane Casey.
After watching the show at Richmond last year, I can safely say the stoppage time sub is a real game changer and has helped to turn Maria Friedman’s production, which also stars Amanda Holden, from a theatrical plod into a snappy and infinitely charming portrayal of friendship.
The new star hoofer isn’t the only modification since the touring production; in fact, it’s really become a different show. Gone are the slow scene changes (and thankfully, the dancing children) and what’s left is a fast paced and punchy comedy brimming with appeal.
The plot of Richard Harris’ play will be familiar to many-having enjoyed numerous past incarnations, including a film version, which starred Liza Minnelli and Julie Walters-and invites us to sit in on a weekly tap dancing class, led by former pro Mavis (Anna-Jane Casey).
The play has been regularly performed on the amateur circuit, a place where, for me, it is at its best, with people who meet once a week for an escape from their everyday lives portraying just that.
No, there is no real depth of character on display, but who really shows their inner feelings at a weekly class with virtual strangers? Don’t most people put on a bit of façade?
The play does however highlight the need for friendship and the ups and downs we all go through when attempting to formulate bonds with strangers. Tracey-Ann Oberman’s voluptuous, overconfident Maxine and Lesley Vickerage’s neurotic Andy sit at opposite ends of the group’s demographic and yet all of the characters exhibit a desperate loneliness in one way or another.
Anna-Jane Casey, in sharp contrast to Tamzin Outwaite, brings a much-needed sensitivity to Mavis. Her entire fibre screams out that she is a dancer-even when just showing basic steps-and her solo dance to a mix tape of show tunes is a real highlight. At one point she ironically utters the line, “I understudied the lead a few times but never got on” well in this production, she most certainly has got on and is absolutely outstanding.
Her sister, Natalie Casey (best known for starring alongside Sheridan Smith and Ralf little in the sitcom, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crips) is another welcome addition and brings a hilarious irreverence to Sylvia, while Sandra Marvin continues to provide a huge amount of self deprecating, mirthful warmth as Rose.
Amanda Holden’s shiny Vera is particularly caricatured (money obsessed with OCD), but the actress plays on her public persona to great effect, while Judith Baker as accompanist Mrs. Fraser, is a typical matriarchal community figure; cantankerous and unwavering in her views, but hiding a heart of gold.
What Harris does with this and his other famous community centred play, Outside Edge, is capture the simplicity of parochial life. He doesn’t attempt to give the stories too much grit or depth, and by putting ordinary people at the heart of the action, he makes them delightfully relatable.
Stepping Out is running at the Vaudeville Theatre until 17th June. You can visit the website for further details https://www.nimaxtheatres.com/vaudeville-theatre/stepping_out