The Colonial Players’ Taking Steps
British farces are not usually my cup of tea; I find madcap, bawdy romps to be silly and exhausting. But Alan Ayckbourn’s Taking Steps is a delightful summer infusion of iced chai: more cool and spicy than hot and saucy, with suspenseful plot twists to make it fun. Colonial Players’ production delivers on its promise to present “a set of very probable, though quite amusing characters in a series of improbable situations that uncover a treasure trove of truth about human nature.”
As in all farces, characters wander in and out of trouble due to misunderstandings. In this one, confusion reigning over the creaky Victorian lodging stems as much from intrigue as from overactive imaginations. The Pines is a former brothel rumored haunted by the amorous and deadly Scarlet Lucy.
It all begins when Lizzie Crabbe (Heather Bagnall), a has-been dancer and trophy wife, decides to leave her new husband, the alcoholic business tycoon Roland Crabbe (Ken Sabel). A coward, she assigns her brother Mark Boxer (Luke Tudball), a tweedy and hapless bore, to deliver the Dear John letter. But Mark is distracted by his own problem, namely Kitty (Sarah Wade), a confused young Sweet Tart with whom he has had a lingering betroth-fail.
Enter Tristram Watson (Paul Webster), the socially awkward solicitor Roland has hired to arrange his purchase of The Pines, which the Crabbes have been renting from Leslie Bainbridge (Eric Hufford), their financially strapped biker/landlord. Tristram and Leslie find Lizzie’s note as she attempts to escape down the stairs. Tristram hears her scurrying in the bedroom above, which he takes as proof of the ghost’s existence.
Too distraught to sleep in his marriage bed, Roland assigns Tristram there as he beds down in a guest room with a bottle of sleeping pills. But that’s where Mark has stashed Kitty, who was on the verge of making her own escape with her own goodbye note and even more unexplained footfalls when she found herself trapped.
A repentant Lizzie returns in the night to snuggle up to her supposed husband, who cowers in her embrace until dawn. With morning light revealing Roland’s apparent suicide attempt and Lizzie’s accidental infidelity, things look bad for Leslie’s real estate deal. Only Mark foresees a rosy future that he expects to spend with Kitty — until she meets Tristram.
Though farce is a genre Ayckbourn is known for, he considers this, his 24th play, written in 1979, his only true farce. Its success lies in the power of imagination contributed by both characters and audience.
Written for theater-in-the-round, it simulates a three-story Victorian with carpeted stair treads and actors charging/trudging/tiptoeing/ skipping upstairs and downstairs according to their moods. They assume appropriate leans and take mincing steps with raised knees as they pursue each other and flee ghostly sounds. The elaborately furnished set has imaginary walls, doors and light switches whose boundaries and functioning must be observed to convey clarity of vision.
If the actors are not up to the challenge, caricatures and confusion result. This cast shows such attention to detail while remaining in character that their movements seem second nature.
Tudball is adorable with his assortment of befuddled expressions and mannerisms. Webster’s timidity resonates with his every anxious start. Wade is lovable and laughable in her ripped fishnets and platforms. Sabel is authoritative, if not always audible, as the clueless Sugar Daddy. Bainbridge displays a gift for comic timing and gymnastics. Bagnall is a narcissistic sight for sore eyes as she stretches and leaps and tries to recapture her glory days in mismatched neon dance togs.
More than entertaining, Taking Steps addresses serious commitment issues. Whether to stay or go is a question we address every day at home, at work and at play. Ayckbourn’s eccentrics resolve their turmoil a bit too abruptly, but their journey is fun. To see what they decide, you’ll have to buy a ticket. I think you’ll be glad you did.