Not even a strong cast can save this musical dud

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I try not to write critical posts – I’d far rather focus on the positive side of life and share the things that I’ve enjoyed doing or seeing. However, theatre is a passion of mine (if you hadn’t already guessed!) and tonight’s disappointing visit to the Vaudeville Theatre only served to remind me why, these days, I tend to avoid the West End and spend my precious free time (and money) in the independents instead. I will always love the West End theatres – I still get a thrill going somewhere like the Theatre Royal Haymarket, whose noble facade dates back to 1720 and which has seen the likes of Herbert Beerbohm, Oscar Wilde, Vivian Leigh, John Gielgud and Vanessa Redgrave pass through its doors. That sense of history and feeling of “if these walls could talk” is hard to beat – and these theatres form an integral part of the London landscape.

I do feel, though, that some of them have lost their way. It’s not an easy thing to do, continue to attract customers and turn a profit in today’s competitive environment, in an expensive city like London (goodness only knows what sort of rates they have to pay to Westminster Council) – but somewhere along the way, the quality of the productions seems to have slipped, with the theatres relying on star names rather than good-quality theatre to bring in the punters.

Which brings me on to the production I went to see tonight: Richard Harris’s ‘Stepping Out’, a tale of seven women and one man attempting to “tap their troubles away” at a weekly dance class – and the drama which ensues when they are asked to participate in a charity gala. Now, I had been looking forward to this show all week and was expecting a slice of entertainment that would transport me out of a somewhat wintry London into a place far more magical. The majority of the ‘Stepping Out’ cast, which includes Tamzin Outhwaite, Amanda Holden and Nicola Stephenson, have been close friends in real life for many years and I was anticipating a cracking night of feel-good, funny theatre.

I couldn’t have been more disappointed. The play was written in the 1980s and this particular production stays faithful to that era, for no particular reason I could discern, given how outdated the play has become. In one way, it was a good thing, as the precious few laughs that there are came from the audience falling about at the 1980s dance costumes that the cast sport (remember those shiny silver all-in-ones from Pineapple?). It didn’t help, either, that Tamzin Outhwaite, who plays the group’s long-suffering teacher, Mavis, had to be replaced by her understudy, having suffered a foot fracture – that’s not her fault, obviously, but having seen TO in a number of plays I know that she is a very good stage actress and she would have injected some much-needed grit into the role.

As it is, the cast do the best they can with their characters, with Tracy Ann Oberman giving the stand-out performance as the outwardly confident but inwardly suffering Maxine – she imbues her character with real warmth. The others, though, face an uphill struggle with the paper-thin plot, one-dimensional characters, stereotypes and – let’s be frank – complete lack of laughs. Sample funny line, Amanda Holden to one of the other characters: “Do you know, I used to be fat – just like you!”

Yes, I winced too.

To all of the West End theatres: we deserve better than this. Take a look at what the likes of the Park Theatre (where I shall be next Thursday, hopefully having much more fun that I did tonight), Southwark Playhouse and Arcola Theatre – to name but a few – are doing – and please, please be inspired by them. Forget about reviving creaking old plays: instead, be bold! You might just be surprised at the reaction you receive…

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