July 05, 1985

Tapping top talent

Stepping Out (Adelaide, Opera Theatre), directed by Rodney Fisher, is certain to be a success considering the appeal of Rowena Wallace and Colette Mann as television celebrities and the enduring reputation of Carol Raye and Nancye Hayes as stage performers.

They are supported by an able cast including Isabelle Anderson, Ron Challinor and Margot Lee. It is a pity, then, that a more worthwhile play wasn’t found as a vehicle for this formidable Australian talent.

The play, written by Richard Harris, may come heralded as a West Ed hit but it’s pretty tired old rope for export. It concerns a group of women and one bloke who meet each week to learn tap dancing.

The setting is a north London church hall where this group of pilgrims gathers to dance away its troubles. We have one of everything – a nurse, a businesswoman, an arriviste matron, a cheerful West Indian, a fat young prole with a heart of gold and so on. And of course we have Geoffrey who is a mousey little shipping clerk and a good opportunity for some limp phallic humour.

There is nothing wrong with formula comedy but this play affects to be liberating some ideas about women’s right to sexuality and discusses fatness and feminism, domestic violence, loneliness and social incompetence only to reinforce the orthodoxies with the self-deprecating fatalism of the characters.

The show is effectively reduced to a Rag Trade style sitcom with the only male character a eunuch so that real satire on power and gender is evaded.

The women make a series of breathless entrances dressed in an endless succession of Hugh Colman’s mix and match aerobics costumes as they hobble unconvincingly through tap routines and disclose the sadness and radiance of their lives as token nurses, blacks, proles and arrivistes. They make a very ersatz pack of women.

Colette Mann manages somehow to transcend the woeful material she is given with some wonderfully deadpan timing and Carol Raye gives a bright performance, while Rowena Wallace looks uncomfortable with her part as a clone of Coronation Street’s Elsie Tanner.

The accents seem to stray all over the British Isles. It certainly raises the question of whether it might have been adapted for Australian audiences. In his earlier play, Outside Edge, Richard Harris showed a quite brilliant capacity for blending hilarious comedy with social issues – in particular the problems of marriage and relationships. Stepping Out in comparison is a giant step back for womankind.

As the play galumphs inevitably to the rather dull performance finale the characters tap in time at least but any sense of their dilemma has melted into a dew. They don’t face the music, they just dance.

The National Times July 5, 1985. p.32.

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