In 1920s America, a craze swept the nation which provided escapism for those languishing in the Great Depression: dance marathons caught the public imagination. Entrants were required simply to dance for as long as they could while being cheered on by an audience, and the last one standing won a cash prize. Simple.
The setting for Emmy award-winning Ron Hutchinson’s new play, Dead on Her Feet is some 10 years later, in the 1930s, which adds to this degrading world of entertainment the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash. Mel Carney (Jos Vantyler) is a dance marathon promoter who has come to Pulaski Falls in the hope of making a quick buck. After clearing out the old Grand American Ballroom, he employs McDade (Ben Whybrow), a hired heavy with pretentions of becoming a writer, to help him preside over the three couples who decide to compete: Wally (Sam Trueman) and Bonnie (Kelly Gibson), a vivacious down-on-her-luck girl met by chance at the station; Myron, the most educated man in Pulaski, and his emotionally fragile partner Rita (Rowan Schlosberg and Victoria Fisher); and Velma (Sandra Reid), who has travelled for days to be there, but – lacking a partner – persuades Jake (Lloyd Thomas), a fortuitously placed delivery boy, to join her on her quest for the $500 prize.
The rest of play depicts the marathon, dealing with a myriad of themes and questions along the way. These are largely woven in successfully, but its density means that the same conversation is often rehashed to ensure we haven’t forgotten the situation, leading to an over-extended piece. It speaks clearly to contemporary financial concerns, with Carney greeting his ‘audience’ by asking, “Anyone out there having hard times? Well sure, aren’t we all?”. Myron will perhaps seem the most familiar to the student body, rallying against a world where his Ivy League education has not delivered its promised pot of gold: employment. It would be impossible to miss such obviously modern day parallels, and director Barry Kyle’s need to emphasise them with modern dance music and beat-boxing is unnecessary and peculiar. Rather than drawing us further into the world, it reaffirms the artifice – something enhanced by the lack of distinction between characters talking to the ‘audience’ and the more internal, ‘backstage’ discussions about how gullible ‘they’ (we) are to be taken in by such brazen showmanship. The various elements of meta-theatricality alienate the unfolding horror, and a lack of internal logic means that always we remain distanced.
The actors are all strong, with Vantyler in particular giving a performance that is both exhilarating and exhausting. He is the consummate showman, twirling and tap-dancing through the play, dallying closer to the edge of madness as he goes. Reid too, in the few moments when she has our complete attention, brings a startling and refreshing honesty. Fundamentally, though, the production doesn’t quite fulfil the script’s promise, falling from the difficult tight-rope it walks between a pastiche of quintessentially 30s Americanisms and hard-hitting look at the depths to which civilised people stoop for entertainment. Though the events depicted are accurate and reminiscent of a modern Colosseum, we are left with a production which disappointingly fails to reflect the visceral brutality of its source material.