Taking Steps: World Premiere ReviewsThis page contains reviews of the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Taking Steps at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in September 1979. It is not a complete set of reviews as the aim of the page is to offer a flavour of how the play was originally received and to offer a cross-section of opinion. All reviews on this page are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author and should not be reproduced. Reviews from Alan Ayckbourn's 2010 London production of Taking Steps can be found here.
Taking Steps (by Robin Thornber)
"Alan Ayckbourn returns to frantic, frothy farce in this, his twenty-third* new play. The black despair which lurked behind the laughter in some of his recent comedies - and gave them a Chekhovian sense of giggling in the gloom - is only faintly echoed here.
Everything is collapsing: the Pines, the decrepit mansion in which Taking Steps is set and the personal relationships. Roland (John Arthur), a rich, boozy, businessman lives there with his third wife, Elizabeth (Alison Skilbeck), a television dancer forced to retire from her athletic career. Her brother, Mark (Robin Herford), is boring everyone to sleep with his dreams of keeping a fishing tackle shop, while his fiancée, Kitty (Lavinia Bertram), has left him standing at the altar. The traditional family building firm is now run by the wide-boy son, Leslie (Jeffrey Robert), who leases the place to Roland and needs to sell it to him to survive.
Into this wobbling world stumbles Tristram (Robin Bowerman), the dithering, deferential solicitor's clerk who accidentally falls into bed with each of the women between apologising for being born. The success of Ayckbourn's farce depends on making these characters plausible - as the meticulously spirited acting by this company does - before putting them into outrageously implausible, but hysterically inevitable, situations.
But if the way Ayckbourn as director achieves a situation which leaves you gasping for breath, it's the way Ayckbourn as writer sets it up which is truly breathtaking. He's back here to to the split-stage technique, with the attic, bedroom, lounge and linking staircases of the house all superimposed on the tiny in-the-round stage of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, in Scarborough. And when an audience accepts that an actress dancing on the floor will cause plaster to fall from the ceiling, the illusion is complete."
(The Guardian, 1 November 1979)
Taking Steps (by John Barber)
"In the plays of Alan Ayckbourn, hilarity and humanity are inextricably combined. In his latest, Taking Steps, at his own little Theatre-In-The Round at Scarborough, the people do not merely get into trouble. They are trouble.
It is not naughtiness or folly that undoes them. They have honest hearts. But they steer their lives with butter fingers. They cannot by-pass disaster because they cannot be other than they are.
Like so many Ayckbourn plays, the new farce written as a "humble tribute" to Ben Travers, is already booked for London. "By farce," he confided in the interval, "I mean the characters are real but the situations are . . . well, improbable."
Temporarily forsaking the serious strain of Joking Apart, the play that put ache into Ayckbourn, he returns to intricacy in plotting, trickiness in staging, and a spaghettic [sic] junction of misunderstandings.
The stage represents, simultaneously, three rooms in a huge and nasty house, not seen side by side but overlapping, like a triple-exposed photograph.
While the girl locked in the cupboard is in the attic, and the man chased by a fancied ghost is in the bedroom, the man downstairs is stealing cigars in the lounge. Being in different rooms, they do not see each other. But we see them all at once.
Havoc all over the house is created by the two women. Both would like to ditch their possessive, adoring men - the wife her rich husband, the girl her pompous fiancé. Both long for "freedom." Both are hag-ridden by indecision.
That is all Mr Ayckbourn needs. As the distraught females fly the house or creep back, the men are either pole-axed by distress or agonised by suspicion. Confusion is worse confounded because the husband is trying to buy the ghastly house. He gets drunk in the company of the rascally vendor and - an inspired creation - a tongue-tied solicitor.
The comedy needs more pace, and some embellishments could be spared. But the playwright keeps faith. His people are almost distressingly real, particularly the temperamental wife (Alison Skilbeck), the ungainly husband (John Arthur), the shiftless girl (Lavinia Bertram) and the rabbity little lawyer (Robin Bowerman).
Their misfortunes raise continual laughter. But there is no malice in it. Their author retains pity for their sweetly idiotic incompetence."
(Daily Telegraph, November 1979)
Ayckbourn Passes The Seaside Test (by Clare Colvin)
"Scarborough is the ordeal by weather to which Alan Ayckbourn submits his new plays.
The test is how many people paddle through the rain and wind-swept streets to the little Theatre in the Round, situated on the floor above the panel beaters' class in Scarborough's technical college
Last night saw a packed house for the premiere of Taking Steps, which he firmly classifies as farce.
After showing us his more serious side recently, this is a welcome return to the mechanics of comedy, comparable in its use of space to How The Other Half Loves.
The three storeys of a rambling Victorian house are concertinaed to one level on stage and the linking stairs also laid out flat.
While a dramatic scene takes place in the bedroom, two feet away someone might be slumped in a sitting-room chair.
It takes great dexterity on the part of the actors to avoid each other in their entrances and exits.
The story revolves round a hard-drinking manufacturer of buckets, Roland, and his bride of three months, a dancer called Elizabeth.
She makes a bolt for freedom while he is negotiating the purchase of the house from his landlord with the aid of a dim solicitor.
Roland is played by the large and expansive John Arthur, and is a sharply accurate portrait of an alcoholic who calls himself a 'social drinker' by coercing others to keep him company.
The rest of the cast are less well defined, though Alison Skilbeck as Elizabeth, had a marvellous opening scene, as she paced around the bedroom with a dancer's duck-footed walk.
There is some repetition in the jokes of which even the experienced Mr. Ayckbourn should be wary, and the play needs to be slightly shorter, But no doubt more tightening up will be done before it arrives in London by 1981."
(Evening News, 31 October 1979)
Taking Steps (by David Jeffels)
"For sheer riotous entertainment, Alan Ayckbourn's latest play, Taking Steps, is unbeatable.
But unlike the majority of his plays so far, Taking Steps is a farce, with a complicated set at the Stephen Joseph Theatre-in-the-Round where Ayckbourn is director of productions.
The players deserve full marks for their perfect timing in weaving their way round imaginary corridors, flats and staircases, which are a vital part of the humour.
Like most of his plays Taking Steps involves broken relationships between couples. Farewell notes, empty tablet bottles and suitcases being packed with monotonous regularity all add up to a brilliantly written script. But it must be said that the first half-hour does seem to pass slowly and there is generally a need to tighten up the dialogue.
It is the strong characters which Ayckbourn has created that makes Taking Steps such a hit.
John Arthur is superb as the chauvinistic well-to-do newly married husband, a domineering man around whom most of the play evolves.
Robin Bowerman too gives probably his finest performance yet at the theatre as the nervous solicitor's clerk who bundles his way through a contract-signing for a new house, only to find himself in bed with the purchaser's wife.
Alison Skilbeck, a very firm favourite at Scarborough, shines as the dancer-housewife who wants to quit marriage after only a few weeks, while Robin Herford is particularly strong as her brother who himself has marital problems.
Lavinia Bertram, although having a relatively small part, is nevertheless an important cog in the hilarious action as, too, is Jeffrey Robert, and both add considerably to the humour.
Alan Ayckbourn is responsible for the excellent direction and Paul Todd for the incidental music."
(The Stage, October 1979)
Ayckbourn Gives Farce A New Meaning (by Iain Meekley)
"I used to think that farce was the lowest form of theatrical wit, until I discovered Taking Steps.
Alan Ayckbourn's 23rd play*, world-premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre last night, transcended all previous meaning of the word - "dramatic work merely to excite laughter", according to the Concise Oxford.
I haven't yet seen an Ayckbourn play that failed to excite laughter, but merely? No, we expect, and get, much more from Ayckbourn than that.
Taking Steps is about as far from the pants-dropping, door-slamming, Whitehall chaseabouts as any civilised human being would be relieved to find himself.
At the same time, it is excruciatingly, achingly funny, and for the first time in my theatregoing life I will admit the cliché that I laughed till I cried, because it was literally true.
The play is built round Ayckbourn's favourite triple device, three separate but interlocking areas: this time it is a high-rise structure.
We have a single set containing plump, chintzy chairs, a luxuriously-sheeted double bed, and a lumpy pallet spread with an army blanket.
The different furnishings represent, respectively, the ground floor, master bedroom, and attic of Elizabeth and Roland's damp and crumbling country home.
To get from one level to another, the actors take steps "up" and "down" flat, carpeted areas representing stairways, employing a sort of comic lumbering hop.
This ingenious device allows all the actors to occupy the stage at the same moment, practically falling over one another's feet, while as far as the play is concerned, they are standing on different floors.
Sorting out this three-dimensional chess puzzle takes a little effort at first - you tend to squint and hope for clues to a character's current spatial position - but after a while you can almost see the three phantom storeys of the house rising above the stage.
In occupation as the play opens are Mark, deserted by his fiancée for a Cypriot waiter, and his sister Elizabeth, a liniment-oiled, obsessively athletic ex-dancer, who has finally decided to leave her husband in search of insecurity.
Mark, hopelessly hooked on angling: "It's like transcendental meditation with an end product", he exults - hopes to reel in his stray fiancée with the bait of a tackle shop all of their own.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth's Roland is planning to buy the incredible hulk he and his wife inhabit from jerry-built and near-bankrupt builder Leslie, and the arrival of both a junior solicitor sent to handle the deal, and fiancée Kitty, is the cue for upstairs, downstairs.
It is beautifully, slickly, done, with the sparkle of Ayckbourn's dialogue shining clear through the farcing about with collapsing beds, collapsed bed-mates, and misinterpreted suicide notes.
Unforgettable is the sequence in which the magnificent John Arthur, as the boozy bucket magnate Roland, is revived from a suspected overdose by a chorus of "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow", and launches into his rambling annual speech to the workers, and the moment when Robin Bowerman, playing the legal weevil Tristram, blissfully surrenders to the undercover activities of Alison Skilbeck's Elizabeth.
Robin Herford is superb as Mark, a man with all the personality of an old sock, whose conversation has the power to instantly anaesthetise the listener; Lavinia Bertram is the restless fiancée Kitty, and Jeffrey Robert the builder Leslie.
This being an Ayckbourn farce, there is no boffo ending, no trouser-waving; really, not even a last laugh.
The play closes with Kitty skipping from the house into the sunlight with a delighted "wheeee", closely followed by a newly-animated Tristram; while Elizabeth halts at the threshold with her suitcase and voices a terrible cry of indecision and frustration.
The other sad ending is that Taking Steps closes at the theatre tonight, and does not return for a month. But it is enormously worth while waiting for."
(Scarborough Evening News, 29 September 1979)
*Taking Steps is now considered to be Alan Ayckbourn's 24th full-length play.
All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.