Home / Drama / Dead On Her Feet – Arcola Theatre, London

Dead On Her Feet – Arcola Theatre, London

Writer: Ron Hutchinson

Director: Barry Kyle

Reviewer: Jane Pink


“Ladies and Gentleman: How long can they last?” read signs beneath ticking clocks in halls throughout America, emblems of the dance marathons that became a feature of the Great Depression. Initially conceived as an expression of freedom in the new Jazz Age, dance marathons provided the opportunity for the penniless and desperate to find temporary respite by winning cash prizes. Opportunistic promoters moved from town to town, whipping residents into a frenzy of excitement with the promise of a better, more thrilling, more glamorous life. But this story is not about a dance phenomenon. It asks us to question how long a country can last in recession; how long a community can stagnate; how long individuals can remain in crisis. As the dance marathons were thrilling yet ultimately draining so too is this play as it leads us to question how long we, in a comparable economic and political environment, can last?

The opening of the play places it firmly in the context of its American heritage, reminiscent of Tennessee Williams, with rapid-fire delivery and clever, knowing metatheatricality. Jos Vantyler gives an energetic and consistently engaging performance as Mel Carney, the ruthlessly sadistic promoter, manipulating his team of dancers for his own benefit. He moves easily between charismatic dream-maker and wild-eyed, manic brute by way of tap-dance, aerial gymnastics and song. The three pairs of dancers are equally well played. Rowan Schlosberg as Myron, the frustrated college graduate, and Victoria Fischer as Rita, his neurotic wife give a sense of discontentment and frustration with both the American dream and each other. Sandra Reid as Velma, single mother looking for a break, and Lloyd Thomas as Jake, the right man in the wrong place, are determined to be the best they can, to make their way in the land of opportunity. The third pair too are thrown together by circumstance. Kelly Gibson gives a strong performance as Bonnie, indignantly thrown off the train and into the way of brawling Irishman Wally, Sam Trueman. Ben Whybrow as janitor and would-be author McDade portrays a man conflicted by his need for money, food and shelter and his sense of moral right and wrong. Building to an eventual revelation of the truth of their lives in the second act, their stories are compelling.

The space at the Arcola, with its brick walls, bare metal girders and basement quality, lends itself well to the story and an interesting fusion of light, sound and projected images bring pathos, energy and chaos in turn to the stage. The actors are carefully and creatively choreographed by Stephanie Roberts in the modest space, building a sense of the relentless nature of the contest and the claustrophobia of their small town lives.

Barry Kyle has realised in this production what Ron Hutchinson’s play suggests. This is not only a view of one of 1930s America’s most bizarre creations but also the opportunity to reflect on the nature of sadism, masochism and manipulation. If Mel Carney is a sadist then is the same not true of the audiences that flocked to give what little money they had to see these shows? And if that is the case are we not also to some degree guilty by association? And to what extent does the masochistic desire to push one-self to intolerable limits make the dancers complicit in Carneys scheme? One can’t help but be reminded of the current fascination with prime time talent shows, listening to both Carney and the dancers evokes echoes of X-Factor, Simon Cowell and those so desperate for fame and fortune that they will subject themselves to seemingly endless manipulation and humiliation.

This is a timely and thought provoking production with a talented and youthful cast giving mature and engaging performances. It resonates with us both politically and socially and by means of witty dialogue, clever design and boundlessly energetic performance gives us insight into both 1930s America and our own lives.

Runs until 3rd November

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