NORTHWEST ESSEX THEATRE GUILD

Little Waltham Drama Group John Folkard '"***********************"**** 53 The Commons Stepping Out by Richard Harris                                                                                                                                                        Colchester C03 4NJ

 

Thursday July 12 2001                                                                                                                                  (0120b) 502054

I thoroughly enjoyed my last visit to Little Waltham - it was my first, too - not only for the worthwhile production (even though it was Funny Moneys itself but for the whole atmosphere engendered throughout the hall and the evening. So I was more than looking forward to this production, especially since the play itself was more interesting than the last one.

One of the special features of Little Waltham seems to be the audience. I reached the village about twenty minutes early and so sat for a while in my car composing myself! (All too often I'm decomposing these days, alas!) I enjoyed myself immensely just sitting there watching the audience arriving, coming from all directions, all chatting away and laughing among themselves. The evening being very warm, I had the car window down, and from where I sat I could clearly hear the audience "orchestra" buzzing away inside the hall including, as on my first visit, a welcome fair sprinkling of young people. It was worthwhile alone coming from Colchester just to drink in all this atmosphere, never mind the play that was to follow. From the outside looking in, Little Waltham seems to be a thriving community, and a great place in which to live.

It was a full house, always a good sight to see, and during the course of the evening I learned that each of the four performances had been sold out. This is good news indeed, indicative of a good spirit throughout the village. Lucky group to have such an appreciative village! Lucky village to have such a talented group to appreciate!

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Front of House

I couldn't help musing on the fact that though there was a capacity audience, as indeed there was the first time I visited you, there was plenty of room to breathe and move about in. Everything was efficiency personified at the door when I arrived, and I was shown to an excellent seat, the more appreciated during the interval when the doors were flung open and all that warm, beautiful fresh outside air flowed into the hall! The programme as before was good value with plenty of information, including notes from Director and Chairman and a more than generous advertisement for the N E Theatre Guild Sponsors the Maldon Fencing Company.

There was no doubt about it, as I settled myself back into the chair, I could see the omens were good for an excellent, entertaining evening!

 

Stage Management

These unsung heroes of most productions were on their toes this evening, with a trouble free performance as far as I could see. The needed changes were wrought between backstage staff and cast, both sections of whom acquitted themselves admirably indeed, faultlessly. The curtains parted promptly at the advertized time of 7.45, and the interval break, twenty minutes according to the programme, was twenty minutes.

Props needed for a particular scene were in place for that scene, discarded ones were removed with maximum speed, efficiency. and quietness! A worrying prospect began to raise its head! "Dear me," I thought_ to myself,

"will there be anything here tonight for me to criticise?"!!! Whatever possibilities would arise for the

employment of criticism, plainly it was not going to be in the direction of the ultra efficient Tony White and colleagues in stage management! !

 

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The Set

The set was necessarily simple but perfectly functional and at times even looked roomy! At any rate, the cast seemed able to move about remarkably freely. It must have taken some skill alone to assemble ten people on the set never mind the fact they would also have to be able to dance on it. An extension had been built which no doubt helped matters a little, but even so over each performance it would also have added to stage management's duties. It was a good idea to utilise a bit of floor space for the piano as well, and incorporate the two doors in the auditorium. This helped considerably with area, naturally, although it did result on a few occasions in a little hesitancy and co-ordination between those on the stage and those going off into the auditorium. Actually, this criticism is a little harsh, but such was the quality of the performance, you deserve to be considered only at the highest level.

 

Furniture and Props

Again, perfectly adequate. Eight chairs and notice board strategically placed so as to allow as much room for manoeuvre as possible. The props were sensibly pared down from those recommended for the script, looked good, and were certainly an adequate and authentic looking amount to make an excellent contribution to the overall stage picture.

 

Lighting

Well, its one way of doing it! The lighting plot in the script was deliberately eschewed and a much simpler one used in its stead. Given the amount of room at your disposal, and the unfortunate lowness of the ceiling, this was doubtless the best course of action. The lighting used served its purpose, came and went on cue, and on two or three occasions dimmed for no appreciable reason, though perhaps it was me missing out on the subtlety. Still, it harboured nothing untoward, and everyone carried on regardless.

 

Costumes

I have reached the stage in life alas, when present day fashion leaves me cold. Everywhere you look you can see pretty girls (at my age fashion means pretty girls!) walking about dressed in the most outlandish way, so that even the most beautiful figure is liable to be lost in sloppy, shapeless clothes or jeans, with enormous footwear to deliver the coup de grace to anything that might be considered feminine. It's me out of date I know. But its a badge I wear with pride ... and ah, the memories!!

But I digress?! It was all the more of a surprise to me then that I actually took to most of the many costumes on display tonight. Penny White chose them, or authorised them, with great skill, and they certainly suited the personality of the wearers in every case. The variety of the different costumes worn was enormous. And they were, I was glad to note, not in the least anti-feminine! In fact, I would go so far as to say ... well ... perhaps not, let's just leave it at congratulations all round in this, as in so many other, of your departments!

 

Rehearsal Stand-in

I was intrigued by this heading in the programme. I can't remember ever having seen it before in over forty years of amateur theatregoing. During the interval I was speaking to one of your officials and happened to comment on it. Claire was invaluable, he told me, always there when wanted, completely dependable, and a wonderful member of the group. Unfortunately, l was not able to see her on the stage, and so she doesn't actually come into the scope of an adjudication, but the fact remains she was a member, and an only too obviously indispensible one, of the team, and deserves recognition as such.

 

Choreography

The programme tells us that before rehearsals began, the cast faced the challenge of learning to tap dance from scratch. In view of the standard of performance we saw tonight, that was positively amazing! It reflects the greatest credit on choreographer Anisette Potter, who had obviously welded the disparate elements into a highly organized whole. I speak with feeling on this matter, as one whose appearances on the dance floor have always been very limited by request of the other dancers!

The manner in which the raw beginners were transformed into accomplished dancers before our very eyes was tremendous, and was brought about with great understanding, not a little humour and a touch of poignancy where it was most effective. And the evening was brought to a triumphant conclusion. I was lost in admiration at the end, as indeed were the whole audience, who showed their appreciation in the time honoured manner by thunderous applause ... and deservedly so.

 

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Direction

I presume it was director John Richardson's decision to stage the performance half onstage and spill the rest into the auditorium. If so, he was vindicated by the success of the evening. The two levels anal the extended forepart of the stage immediately trebled the scope of his options and strengthened his hold on the production in a way impossible to envisage with only the stage being used, even if the piano remained on the floor.

The layout of the production couldn't have been bettered, given the circumstances, and Mr Richardson marshalled his forces and exploited his resources with tremendous skill and effectiveness. He covered every inch of available space at one time or another, onstage or in the auditorium. It wouldn't have surprised me if he ended up utilising the ceiling as well, but he evidently drew the line at abseiling!. Probably sensibly!!

His production of Stepping Out proved a confident one, oozing with plenty of the necessary pace, lively movement and a great deal of panache. He made sure the cast used the entire acting area to good effect, entered and left the stage with all possible facility, and during the pauses between scenes moved to their places quickly and without fuss.

The first half set a cracking pace, but a sensible one, so that we had time to assess the characters and the flaws and foibles that made. them human. This was, after all, a voyage of discovery as well as a series of dancing classes! By the end of the first half, I think we were all hooked on the girls as individuals (and the unfortunate Geoffrey of course) and-awaited the second part with keen anticipation. In all but the penultimate scene we were not disappointed. In this. scene the energy seemed suddenly to sag, the cast grouping looked a little askance and the dialogue got rather- bogged down. But I'm not at all sure it was entirely the fault of the cast. The script appeared to meander, perhaps while members backstage were preparing for the next scene, I'm not sure. On the whole the stage pictures were good, even at their most fluid.

Characterizations among the cast were cleverly contrasted, and came across as thoughtfully delineated. The director has a good eye for comedy and comic situations and remarks, and the irony behind some of these were pointed up with skill It was good to see the way the play flowed along naturally, and to admire the manner in which the large disciplined cast worked together on their own particular parts and with each other.

 

 

The Cast

 

 

Lynne (Laura Riches)

Lynne and Dorothy set the ball rolling nicely with the opening sequence in front of the mirror, and Laura quickly established her sympathetic character, earnest, a little nervous, in constant dread of doing things wrongly and biting her nails when she did!

I liked her wistful little remark that she "wished she could dance like that" when she unexpectedly catches Mavis practising: a world of meaning in that remark! And Laura managed well the swift change of subject in the following dialogue; about the old lady who had died that morning. The rather bold (for Lynne) suggestion to Mavis that the rest of the dancers have a little individual scene with Geoffrey was delightfully presented, and my heart bled for the poor lass as Mavis's withering response caused her to lose the original conviction that it was a good idea, and the final capitulation when she admits that it was "Not very good, actually."

Laura did not have all that much of a chance in the dialogue to evolve a living breathing character, but in her hands a good one emerged. She moved around the stage easily and confidently,- and on the whole spoke her lines well. There was a slight tendency to lose words at the end of sentences in some cases, usually when speech had to be co-ordinated with movement, but it was a likeable, rounded and sympathetic portrait of Lynne that she created.

 

Dorothy (Mares Irving)

This was a performance I thoroughly enjoyed. Dorothy emerged in Marea's (spelling as in programme - is it right?) hands as a very anxious individual, unsure of herself or her ability. This was indeed the picture created by Mares, who nevertheless looked completely in command of herself when on the stage, and who, with not much to say generally in the scheme of things, succeeded in establishing Dorothy's credentials to the audience.

It was a rather lonely portrait that-she drew - but oh! So real! The concern about somebody stealing her bike was beautifully handled, and the conversation with Andy about the lack of help from her brother in looking after her mother gave us a clear insight into another aspect of Dorothy's lonely existence. The description of the swans coming in to land on the pool in the park was spoken very clearly, simply and with feeling, and Dorothy's great

 

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concern about being accused of shopping Rose's son to her colleagues came across with real conviction, as did her distress at not having a hat when they eventually arrived for rehearsals.

As in the case of Lynne, Dorothy had to create her character with a few sharp bold strokes, rather than establish it gradually during the evening, and this Marea succeeded in doing with authority, boldness of execution and moments of subtlety. The fact these things were alien to Dorothy's own character reflected volumes on Marea's ability as an actress.

 

Mavis (Catherine Bell)

A rather low-key performance from Catherine as the head of the dancing class. I suppose it would not be too true to life if she were too authoritarian, but I feel perhaps a little more assertion would not have come amiss. Having said that, in moments when it counted, Catherine certainly rose to the occasion. The coldness when poor Lynne suggested a few solo performances around Geoffrey was positively Antarctic, and the calmness with which Mavis sorted out Mrs Fraser's tantrums was exactly what was needed.

I thought Mavis began the evening almost indifferently. She seemed not too bothered when Vera appeared and wanted to join the cast, but things picked up once the dancing class actually began. Catherine was first class when it came to demonstrating the dance steps she wanted done; I don't know how competent she was compared to other members in the cast, but she came across very strongly as the teacher among a class of pupils.

This apparent inner strength served Mavis well throughout the vicissitudes of the evening as she moulded her class of rookies into a capable dancing unit. The contretemps with Mrs Fraser over the tempo adopted last time was very amusing with both ladies jockeying for position, and Mavis trying (and succeeding) to remain calm. The irritated outburst with Vera about giving up smoking was impeccably handled, and there was a touching scene with Andy about why she came to dancing class. This was a brilliant little episode: as Mrs Fraser said, "you should be selling encyclopaedias!" Who would have been able to resist?

The subsequent scene with Mrs Fraser unfolded to us the world of Mavis's home life. Not a pleasant one, apparently, which would explain the passion underneath the outburst about "I'm bloody well pregnant and I don't want to be - can you understand that". This was delivered in such an absolutely heartrending way, it was just as well her husband was not sitting beside me!

Catherine gave a performance that, after a slow start, I warmed to as the evening progressed, and she ended on a high note with an interpretation that elicited a great deal of well deserved warmth and sympathy for her predicament.

 

 

Mrs Fraser (Elise Allen)

This was a wonderful, well-rounded performance from someone who spent virtually the whole evening with her back to the audience! Of necessity, of course! Mrs Fraser was a woman of few words (almost a contradiction in terms, but let that pass!) but each word was to the point and tellingly delivered. You couldn't always quite hear the words, which, given the position, was not Elise's fault, but because of the way they were spoken, you certainly got the gist! Mrs Fraser's dry, laconic manner was put across with feeling, and the tantrum was convincingly done. Her little conversation with Mavis at the end of scene 3 revealed there was a heart somewhere around, if you dug deep enough!

Mrs Fraser's costume was a treat!! It told us everything about her!! But her real function, was as an accompanist, and this she did superbly well. Only one grouse, and that not a really serious one. In Funny Money your last production we were promised the overture to William Tell by the script, but didn't get it. Tonight we were promised Chopin's Revolutionary Prelude, but got instead, The Sting if I'm not mistaken!! But all in all, a delightful performance.

 

Marine (Julie Cole)

Marine brought me something approaching an early jolt. I hadn't realized anyone in the cast would have been born early enough to have been an Ovaltiney. Surely they were pre-1939? However ... Julie brought a nice bright and breezy side to her character which obviously bouyed her up in what seemed like yet another questionable home life. I liked her knockabout style of banter with Rose and Sylvia, and her way with delivery of words, such as the bit about coming home and finding her husband admiring the love bites he'd made on his neck - himself! or her semi-confidential advice to Andy to "pretend, darling, like you do with your husband. .." deservedly almost brought the house down, and must have set many male minds wondering anxiously about themselves! Or, of Mavis, "she should be a good dancer, she certainly-knows how to put her foot in it." These lines were delivered with the right sort of light, good natured, delivery that were funny without being vindictive.

 

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I suppose all this could militate against the conversation Maxine had with Andy about her early life, her subsequent self-admitted failures, her lack of confidence, and her description of herself as Maxine the Mouth. Julie didn't convey any of these faults, but as she was obviously trying to cheer Andy up, I don't think Maxine really believed all of them herself. There was another beautiful touch when demonstrating the steps with Geoffrey, and ending up on his knee, she looked at Mavis and proffered; "it's only a suggestion!"

A very enjoyable performance.

Andy (Susan Butler)

Poor Andy!! Susan certainly made her a nonentity, though I mean that in the nicest possible way, folks! Yet another lady with a very blighted home life. Are all homes like this nowadays? It was not too surprising that we learn later on she is beaten by her husband. We first meet her with Maxine, undecided over a pair of leotards, and she remains undecided for the rest of the evening. Even Geoffrey abandons her finally, which must have been something of a new low!

From such unpromising material Susan fashioned a very sympathetic character, from the first tortured meeting with Geoffrey to the final curtain. When Andy tells Geoffrey where she saw him walking last Tuesday, we get a good idea of the interesting nature of any of her conversations!! But it was expertly delivered, and painted a vivid portrait of a vital part of Andy's private life. Yet there is fire there, as Susan reminded us when the ladies were ribbing Geoffrey over his "brilliant idea" about starting to warm up before Mavis arrived. A nice contrast of mood here, and done with a subtle change of delivery.

The petition signing scene also showed a welcome degree of steel within her, and was followed by the very poignant, beautifully handled scene with Mavis. It was only a few lines, and Mavis spoke as many as Andy, but it was Andy's lines that seared themselves into me. "I come because its the only thing I do in the week for me. Everything else is for other people." There, in one sentence, you have a telling summary of Andy's private life, but vital and important as the line is, Susan quite properly delivered it in an ordinary, matter-of-fact way. It was brilliant! !

The attraction to Geoffrey was adroitly handled with a few revealing gestures and silent looks at him when arriving or leaving, or the fractured conversations when he was there with her, and his ultimate rejection of her near the end was another memorable moment. After Geoffrey's acceptance of the invitation to the party, Andy spoke not a word, but her body language shouted volumes!

Geoffrey (Peter Travell)

Geoffrey is described in the script as the sort of man who doesn't like being noticed, and most of the time wouldn't be. This raises a certain amount of difficulty because if there is one thing you must be on the stage, it is noticed! At times I thought Peter was going to be so self-effacing, he'd vanish altogether. He managed not to go quite that far, but at times it was a close run thing. It was not in the least surprising he chose to change behind the noticeboard!

I hasten to add the character he gave us was an excellent one, idiosyncratic and carefully moulded. It was just a little under-projected for too long at a time. There were moments, such as the manouvreing around while being burned by Vera's coffee cup, or the knowledge that he would be before, rather than behind, the girls, that were hilarious, and the humour was controlled to a nicety. The suggested attraction to and for Andy was also astutely conveyed, so well indeed that the spurning of her offer of a dinner towards the end was surprising and uncharacteristically cruel. This moment was one of the very few, perhaps the only, as far as I can remember, moment when Geoffrey displayed a positive side.

He took a long time to work up to it! He was nervous at the first suggestion of the charity show, he was - understandably! - nervous in the company of the other girls most of whom seemed hell-bent on pulling his leg, and nervous when first using cane and top hat! His triumphant finale on the dance floor was all the more rewarding, and deserved.

It was a difficult role simply because Geoffrey was required to display only one side of his character throughout the whole evening, and the result could well have veered on the aside of monotony. But in Peter's more than capable hands this extreme was avoided, and instead we were given a sympathetic, if desperately

lonely, creation.    5

 

 

Vera (Jenny: Broadway)

A thoroughly enjoyable performance from an actress who had obviously worked out her character's foibles and presented them in a convincing, masterly fashion. Vera's entrance was a good example of the skill Jenny used to work on her personality. The pseudo-posh accent when first meeting Mavis, the sly glances at herself in the mirror whenever she passed it, the discreet suggestion of preening her hair by it, the barely suppressed air of condescension when speaking to Mrs Fraser, all added authenticity to the character Jenny created.

I enjoyed the slight touch of superiority conveyed on "Lionel brought it back from Geneva" of her shirt, or the scarcely concealed undercurrent of criticism when asking Mavis about her smoking and Sylvia about her nauseating gum chewing habit! And the look of disgust when gingerly picking up the sock from the chair showed even Vera's fingers to be almost snooty as she was!! Excellently done.

There were other goodies, such as the bit about going to Lionel's cousin's wedding, or the abhorrence in the voice of "you mean they're second hand?" Until Thursday I hadn't realised there were so, many ways of being, or talking, superior! !

This was an excellent performance from an actress bold and confident in her movements, strong on characterisation but with a wealth of subtle nuances to call upon when appropriate.

 

Sylvia (Gill Haysham)

A gorgeously larger than life creation, full of warmth and good humour. Sylvia would have enlivened any party she attended, and certainly did the production tonight. She got off to the loudest of starts by summoning the stragglers from the changing room and never looked back.

Gill's performance contained so many plums it is difficult to know where to start. She always had a choice turn of phrase when delivering her comments on most things: the disdainful pose she adopted for "talk about the fairy on the bleeding Christmas tree" suited the stance perfectly, the risque "I've been trying to keep my knees

together all my life" followed by an explosive burst of laughter, the lightly ironic "twenty years married and three kids, more like a rotten miracle" the sarcastic remark to Vera about finding her gum everywhere "that's because I keep putting it everywhere," or the mischievious "well, we can have a drink and you can have a carrot" . . . the list goes on and on, each comment pertinent, and each one delivered with unerring accuracy and to great effect.

It wasn't all fun and games, of course. Gill handled the brief "they're turning my Terry over" episode with just the right amount of hurt annoyance, as though she didn't believe Dorothy would have done it, but was determined to make sure she hadn't, and she capped the scene with an impeccably timed shot at Mrs Fraser on her entrance, "she's been at the carrot juice".

Gill's straightforward no-nonsense approach, exactly the right one for Sylvia's character, kept the audience amused and delighted throughout the evening, and she thoroughly deserved the undoubted success she achieved.

 

Rose (Karen Wray)

Another fine larger than life figure whose character is laid down extremely quickly; with her very first line, in fact_ "Oh Rose", asks Mavis, "has your leg gone numb again?" "I don't know, I can't feel it" Rose replies! With such wit flying around, who would be a teacher!

I must confess I was undecided about the authenticity of the Irish accent. It could be argued logically of course that this means it was successfully employed, because I couldn't detect any slip in it, and it was constant all during the evening. If Karen is Irish, I apologize!!!

Rose was obviously a formidable wife. When she describes how her husband's dinner was already in the bin, so she threw that at him, it was easy to feel that jocular remark or not, she was perfectly capable of doing it. Like Sylvia, Rose had some amusing one liners, which she, too, delivered with aplomb and appropriate good humour. "Sure we can move. The problem being that in my case it all moves in different directions!", and "My old man says its (her wig, perhaps I should add) like sleeping with a Brillo pad!" Though she wasn't averse to the odd ironic little remark, such as "Perhaps Lionel was phoning from Stuttgart" or "The two sore thumbs in the middle!"

Karen gave an explosive performance that blended in well with the extrovert Gill and the quieter but no less bright and breezy Maxine. These three would have lightened any tap dancing class anywhere.

 

Fairy (Sue Jones)

I've come across many different kinds of fairies over my theatrical years, but I don't recall ever seeing one with contact lenses before! Sue invested this one with a genial, happy personality as she stood there, having found her lost contact lens, holding a placard with the name of the act performing on it. Well, at least she looked as if she was enjoying it!

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This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening from start to finish. There were the odd moments when words disappeared at the ends of sentences, when the slightest suggestion appeared that lines were a struggle, and when breathlessness caused a hairsbreadth loss of characterisation. Having said that, I acknowledge that to say so is nit-picking the nth degree, and I repeat, I do so because you all deserve to be placed at the highest level. Nothing less than that would do you justice. Thank you for inviting me over to see such a wonderful evening's theatre

John Folkard