Stepping Out

Date 28th September 2019
Society Retford Little Theatre
Venue Retford Little Theatre
Type of Production Play
Director Liz Williams
Choreographer Betty Teanby


Author: Andrew Key

This was my first ever visit to the lovely Retford Little Theatre and to see a society who produce an incredible five plays a year. And the night I attended was an especially important one for them as it marked their 400th production. There was a super cake and bubbly afterwards, much enjoyed by a packed house. Retford Little Theatre, that started in the early years of the Second World War, has come a long way since then, when it first endeavoured to entertain a town in the grip of Wartime austerity. Their welcome was warm and genuine when I arrived and I sensed immediately that this was a thriving group of people, dedicated to theatre.

I was especially taken with a sign by the serving hatch in the foyer, ‘We are all volunteers, please join us.’ What a good idea and something I must mention to other societies.

Stepping Out is not an easy play to put on by any stretch of the imagination as it requires an ensemble cast to end the show with a stunning tap dancing routine. But I’m delighted to report that Retford Little Theatre pulled it off, in real style. With the incomparable Betty Teanby in charge of the dancing, they were in safe hands.

The Tuesday set building team had constructed a very functional and entirely appropriate set – ‘a seedy Church hall somewhere in Yorkshire,’ helped along during their work I understand by some very welcome bacon butties from the producer and director, Liz Williams.

Mavis, the linchpin to the whole production, the long suffering tap teacher was played to superb effect by Sue Benson, returning to the Retford stage after an absence of several years. Her dance abilities were evident and she really did hold the play together. Great acting too Sue. Reflecting on a dancing career that never quite reached the heights she’d hoped for, she said wistfully ‘it’s the day you wake up and realise you’ve no more expectations’. We all got this character and were on her side.

Grace Bowskill, Pauline Lindsay and Shelley Harvey, all making their debuts in a mainstream Little Theatre play, all made their mark as did Donnamarie Sharp as Maxine, complete with her bright pink leggings.

There were some cracking lines, delivered with great comic timing by the cast. I loved Jayne Cox’s snooty, cleaning-obsessed Vera of whom it was said, ‘she should be a good dancer, she certainly knows how to put her foot in it.’ As she declared herself to a fellow dance class attendee, ‘it may be February outside, but its always August under your armpits.’ Jayne played the part with just the right amount of brash superiority, tempered with a vulnerability that showed itself as the story unfolded. We finally discovered the possible reason for her cleaning fixation, namely a husband who was spending much more time with his step daughter, than with her, as she reminded him of her mother Vera ‘when she was her age’. A lovely portrayal of Vera.

Some of the best lines also went to Sarah Mullins’ Sylvia – who started her tap dancing career in crocs rather than tap shoes and, as she put it herself, ‘I just seem to use whatever foot comes to hand.’ A lovely comic, yet gentle, portrayal meaning we all empathised with this character. In one way or another, we’ve all been there. My favourite line from Sylvia? When told in class to ‘try to keep your knees together’, she replied, ‘I’ve been trying to keep my knees together all my life.’

Lesley Oliver’s Andy (its not short for anything, its long, for Anne) was a very well considered portrayal of a woman with her own serious domestic issues, that we only really guessed towards the end. Lesley resisted the temptation to overplay the part, meaning we truly believed in her. As she said, ‘I came because it’s the only thing I do in the week that’s for me.’ Her one opportunity to escape the problems that she faced for the other six days. A powerful performance. Well done.

Stepping Out is primarily a play for women of course, but there are two men’s parts. Mark Thornton played Geoffrey, the only man in the class – reminding me of my one and only foray into the world of tap dancing – when I also was the only man there. Unlike Geoffrey, I only lasted a week. Geoffrey, in his cardigan and pyjama bottoms did stand out a bit, but the women accepted him warmly into their troop. As the only man Geoffrey was called on to do a spot with each woman in turn – ‘you’ve all got two bars with Geoffrey’ as Mavis informed them. But Mark stepped up and stepped out with the best of them.

The part of the temperamental piano accompanist, Mr Fraser, was taken by Martin Yates. And what a grumpy Yorkshireman he was – as well as an accomplished keyboard player, producing a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday, quite unexpectedly,  for Irving Berlin. A good contrast with the other characters, meaning we were all waiting for his next acerbic aside.

The play was challenging I’m sure for the director, but Liz was able to maintain the audience’s attention wonderfully throughout by emphasising the light and dark of the script to good effect. All the characters in this Yorkshire tap dance class had their issues and problems, but just once a week, all that stuff could be put to one side as they came together to produce something special. And so it is with amateur dramatics. Hold up a mirror to any society and the same cross section of the community will be found there, in church halls, theatres and other venues across the country.

And we all try to produce something special. Which is just what Retford Little Theatre did on Saturday. 400 performances and still going strong. Here’s to the next 400.

Congratulations to everyone involved at Retford Little Theatre for this landmark show.

Andrew Key