by Richard Harris
Directed by Adam Penford
Salisbury Playhouse Production
20 September 2012, matinee
It’s such a British thing. Amateur Dramatics, Dancing School presentations, The Oxbridge and Dingley Gondoliers doing Gilbert & Sullivan for a week every dank November in a converted cinema. We love putting ourselves under presure and working up a performance. In this play, it’s tap dance.
The play was hugely popular, running in London from 1984 to 1987. This new production keeps it set in 1984. There’s no special reason in the text, but since 1984 church halls have brought in the congregations as volunteers, had a lick of bright paint, new pine floors, new serving hatch and so on. You couldn’t have the long-suffering pianist looking like Ena Sharples in 2012 either. It was wise to stay in 1984.
The Salisbury set is brilliant, though that’s a given with Salisbury Playhouse productions. It’s the church hall of my sixties and seventies memories, perfect in every detail from the yellowing windows high above the floor, opened by ropes that no longer work, the nursery playgroup pictures on the stage, the stained glass door, the missing letter on the REFRESHMENTS sign. I noticed even the 13 amp socket at the foot of the stage had the wire running over the surface rather than being concealed. I spent a lot of time in a facsimile hall … our garage band was allowed to rehearse very loudly in the church hall on three Saturdays a month (the fourth was a jumble sale, an institution killed by charity shops). In return we had to play at the youth club free (until they found our playing reduced attendance), and from time to time pick our way laboriously through Go Tell It On The Mountain or Very Last Day in the church itself. Both were garnered from Peter, Paul & Mary LPs. We had to wear suits.
The dance setting gives us a cast of nine women and one man. The dancing class is well observed. It was so familiar that I was starting to put different names on the faces. The red tin to collect the money, with weekly fees noted in an exercise book was right. The older woman taking the money (usually the dancing teacher’s mum in my experience, though not here). The lone male goes right through to kids ballet classes, where some poor boy is made to accompany his sister. When our kids were young, the resentful lone boy at ballet classes was the son of a female psychologist who worked as a sex therapist. The mind boggles.
The various shapes, ages, background and sizes are all right too. So is Maxine, continually selling leotards and costumes to the rest of them, as is the repeated question to her, ‘How much?’ answered by ‘Don’t worry, we’ll sort it next week.’ i.e. I’ll tell you the price next week when you’ve already worn it and can’t give it back. Being an adult class, the one thing they can’t add is the incessant ladders of exams and grades, and the rules which means the girls wear a black leotard and shoes for classes, but have to buy white for the exam. It’s a well-known money pit. Here, they’ll all need the same colour shoes and the fitting of loose taps.
I’ve been through the adult class myself. When we were doing our weekly comedy shows for foreign students, Karen had the idea that our stage movement and positioning would be vastly improved by a few stage dance classes. A private lesson for seven was organized, and five hapless and inept males and one female tried to master the rudiments, and learned that none of us had the kinesthetic learning ability for sequences of moves. We soldiered on, to much muttering. Karen, the seventh class member, had studied dance, and the teacher’s continual instructions made her highly unpopular with the rest of us, ‘Just watch Karen … that’s perfect Karen … I want you all to follow Karen …’
These things do run on a shoestring, as in the play. They also have enormous social benefits. My granddaughter’s annual show involves over a hundred kids from four to eighteen, and all shapes and sizes participate. I don’t think it’s any longer true that dance predicates a body type either. The kids love it, it’s hard work and they feel great afterwards.
In the play, the ‘end of term show’ gets replaced by a ‘charity show.’ I marvelled at how the cast manage to dance ineptly in ten different ways, even when we get to the finale, the actual show, which they do well, the faces are still acting. The ‘curtain call’ is their show a year later in way more elaborate costumes, and that’s the cast’s chance to strut their stuff and do it perfectly, which they do. Rachel Stanley, as the teacher, Mavis, gets to join them and sings the one full-length song, Stepping Out.
I’ve rarely selected a play on the director, but we selected this one based on Adam Penford’s direction of One Man Two Guv’nors. The play requires many time shifts as we move to the class a week later and so on. This is done smoothly and efficiently. The lights go down, a spotlight picks out one character every time or us to watch, and by the time they go up, everyone has significant costume changes, marking the time shift.
The character interaction is a major feature. We learn more about the women, but peripherally, not directly. Thus we guess for ourselves why Vera’s seventeen year old daughter spends so much time with her stepdad. As with all such amateur productions, tensions are drawn out as the performance gets nearer, tempers wear thin, things are said that would have been better left unsaid. It happened in every one I was involved in. There’s also the moment when everyone starts to have vague ideas and chip in, and Mavis, the teacher and choreographer gets upset, then has to exert her directorial authority. That happens every time too.
Stepping Out is a superb play, and a perfect choice for revival. My one regret is that when we writing the comedy vignettes for Grapevine and English Channel videos, we kept submitting an idea based on an amateur theatrical rehearsal in a church hall. We never managed to persuade the producer to do it. it’s a rich theme for comedy.