Dead On Her Feet

Ron Hutchinson
The North Wall
Arcola Theatre

Jos Vantyler as Mel Carney

Premiered briefly at North Wall’s base in Oxford before its run at the Arcola, this is a play about one of the dance marathons best know today from Horace McCoy’s 1935 novella They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and the 1969 Sidney Pollack movie based on it.

The craze for these competitions swept across America in the 1920s. In the Depression years into the 1930s, they became a desperate resort for some of the unemployed and needy, not just because they offered a large cash prize to the winners but because they provided shelter and food so long as people were still in the competition.

The marathon in the play takes place in the town of Pulaski Falls, a Hicksville that could be anywhere. The play starts with a stage littered with garbage. There is a montage of depression headlines and newsreel footage projected upon a pile of rubbish, but the shiny contemporary plastic bin bags clearly mark this as being as much about today as a piece of mid-twentieth century history.

Marathon promoter Mel Carney has come to town to cash in. He has a $500 prize on offer to the longest survivor in a competition that demands non-stop dancing except for ten minutes rest every two hours. The rubbish is cleared and he does up the dance hall, fixes the local officials and pulls in his contestants. He always has some new ploy to attract the voyeurs to his sadistic spectacle.

Dramatist Hutchinson gives us just three couples to represent the competitors. Wally (whose friends call him Mike because of his Irish family origin) is a marathon veteran but arrives in town in need of a partner. Sam Trueman plays him as a wised-up survivor but he’s hiding a guilty secret. Mike picks up Bonnie who gets off the same train. She may be down on her luck but her strong personality outshines her torn skirt and holed stockings. American actress Kelly Gibson, over here as part of the US / UK Equity exchange programme, gives her fast-talking sparkle.

Local boy Myron can’t get a job but he’s not working class. He’s college educated, even been back to do a second degree in an attempt to improve his prospects. He wants to get out to try his luck in New York and talks his reticent girl friend into being his dance partner. Rowan Schlosberg shows him clinging to hope but his eyes signal desperation, while Victoria Fischer as girlfriend Rita takes us from unwilling acquiescence to hysterical breakdown.

Third couple are desperate, black single-mum Velma (Sandra Reid) whom Carney won’t accept without a partner. When likeable first-day butcher boy Jake (Lloyd Thomas) arrives to deliver meat to the promoter, she charms him into chucking his job to join her.

Carney also recruits a dogsbody, would-be writer McDade, to keep his dancers in check and carry out his dirty work. Like the dancers, McDade (based partly on Shoot Horses writer McCoy), gets only food and shelter—no pay, but still takes the job on. Increasingly his own integrity makes him question what he is doing. Ben Whybrow plays him very gently: neither his physique nor his manner suggest the tough guy Carney thinks he has got and in forefronting his sensitivity the performance seems underpowered against those of the rest of the company.

Quite the opposite with Jos Vantyler as Mel Carney. He gives a stunning performance. The promoter may be an exploitive conman but the actor is charismatically watchable. He gives the man a capacity to charm as well as making him ruthless, yet his face is a mask, and it is not painted on.

The first half of the play sets up the characters and the situation. There is little really happening, but Barry Kyle’s production ensures that it holds our attention. In the second half, we are caught up with the contest. Carney is in charge swinging from a trapeze, his commentary whipping interest in his bear-pit like audience. A projection of days, hours, minutes and seconds whirls numbers as the marathon lengthens. The dancing is at times interrupted for competitive races to eliminate contestants. It is not the real thing but these actors have stamina.

Carney rubbishes McDade’s watery idealism with his own kind of realism. He argues there’s no point kicking against capitalism, that is just how it is. As he too frantically dances, you see him as another of its victims.

Is Hutchinson saying there are no-winners in our competitive, market-based society? Oh, there are—the really rich still seem to get richer, but for most of us, out there on the world’s dance floor, what chance is there if we can’t buck the system?

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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