Sunday, 19 November 2017

Stepping Out - Koorliny Arts Centre (18 November 2017)

Many moons ago, towards the end of my career as a manager for a large national company in Sydney, one of the few times of solace was a weekly screenwriting class in Bondi. In those couple of hours, talking about movies and writing, all thoughts of personal and professional worries were held in abeyance. It ultimately led me to resigning and returning home to Perth to pursue my creative dreams. But that's another story.

In Stepping Out seven women from diverse backgrounds and a sole male attend regular tapdance classes to escape all manner of domestic disharmony or their own personal demons. In essence the play is an extended choreography session with hints at the dysfunction outside the walls of the studio that drives these people here. There is also the inevitable clash of personalities as pressure builds on learning they will be performing in front of an audience for the first time at a charity event.

It's a familiar arc - tyro performers race against time to prepare for an event where public humiliation lurks yet somehow pull it all together to triumph. The trick here is to show people tapping badly for the majority of the production before the razzle dazzle of the ending.

And razzle dazzle it does. Choreographer Allen Blachford has taken a true ensemble of actors, some of whom have never tapped before in their lives, and crafted a credible character trajectory from enthusiastic novices (though some characters less than others) to competent tappers. It's a surefire crowd pleaser when all the stumbling and bumbling turns into a polished routine.

In this Hannah Harn is Blachford's surrogate as Mavis, the tap instructor. Harn's Mavis shows glimpses of true ability as she puts the class through its paces while dealing with surly pianist Glenda (Lucy Eyre) who provides arch comments and hurt feelings as appropriate. Harn clearly has the dancing chops and features heavily in the showpiece numbers at the end. I wasn't quite as convinced when Mavis is required to turn bitchy as complications arise over the routine for the charity event. There is also a revelation that didn't quite land and was quickly forgotten.

Indeed, a lot of threads are left hanging in the personal lives of these women and the introverted Geoffrey (played with great understatement by David Gardette). Dilemmas are set up but never truly tackled or resolved. The play seems to be saying you can have your moment in the spotlight no matter what demons await in the darkness.

The character most afflicted by this is Andy whose unseen husband looms large in crippling her self-esteem. Casey Edwards inhabits the character with stark rigidness - hunched shoulders, arms stiff by her sides with hands frozen. Edwards' work with Gardette is a quiet highlight as Andy tentatively reaches out to make a truthful human connection. The character is also, in many ways, the moral compass of the tale with her petition regarding the local park and a well earned outburst.

If Andy is quiet then there are more than a few characters who go large in counterpoint beginning with the fastidious newcomer Vera. Claire Matthews gives Vera a colurful persona, all fussy and strutting, with a knack for the well meaning dagger to the heart as self-censorship isn't Vera's strong suit. Costume designer Lynne Leeder adds to the peacock allure dressing Matthews in outrageously bold outfits that she pulls off with panache. The well-judged performance is the engine room for most of the friction within the class.

Chief adversary is Anita Telkamp's straight-shooting Sylvia who, by comparison, has a bogan twang which she wields with cutting one-liner retorts. Telkamp's comic timing and delivery are very good here. The costuming reinforces the difference between the two women with Sylvia looking more at home in Tap Dogs than shopping at Man-doo-ra Forum.

Then there's Maxine as played by Rachel Monamy, a character who always seems to be on the hustle selling outfits to the group and (eventually) providing the costumes for the charity event whilst dealing with her step-son "Wonderboy". I liked that the style of humour for each character was in a different spectrum. Monamy's more a conversational style here; Eyre's pointed and gruff; Matthews' sly and demeaning; Telkamp's dry and cutting.

The cast is rounded out by Stacey Holling's Lynne who has more confidence in her tap ability and a nice personality to boot; Jenny Lawrence's Dorothy who was a little nervous and fidgety about the whole thing; and Nontuthuzelo Mqwati who had some telling lines in response to being the 'ethnic' of the group as Rose.

There is a lot of good physical comedy as well as they all come to terms at having to tap with sticks AND bowler hats. A running - well, actually, tripping gag with Gardette whose earnest attempts at being out front as the only male are a delight.

The audience was enthusiastic with much appreciation of set-pieces. The final tap routines went down a treat though there were a few moments in the lead up that dragged a little as the focus shifted to oblique mentions of the world outside the studio. That those set-ups weren't paid off or resolved left me with the uneasy feeling that these women's triumph was but temporary. Given recent revelations in the world of comedy, news broadcasting, and Hollywood, perhaps, sadly, an all too true outcome.

Overall though I laughed throughout and had a good time with this. The ending was well earned and executed with style as director Geoffrey Leeder showcased the ensemble to full effect.

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