Desperate Dancers

Dead on her Feet at the Arcola Theatre

Dead on her Feet focuses on the American dance marathons of the 1930s and draws parallels not only between the Great Depression and the current recession, but also between entertainment trends of the last century. Well directed, brilliantly acted – yet occasionally lacking in subtlety and surprise – this moving piece will wear you out! At the Arcola.


“Our desperation was entertainment; sadism was sexy, masochism was talent”.

Emmy Award-winning screenwriter, Ron Hutchinson, joins forces with Barry Kyle, the RSC’s Honorary Associate Director in the North Wall production of Dead on her Feet. This new play focuses on the American marathon dances, a craze that swept the United States in the 1920s jazz age, a time of social and sexual liberation. The catalyst for the Great Depression, namely the Wall Street Crash of 1929, changed the nature of these dance hall contests. Throughout the 1930s, contestants grew increasingly desperate to win the prize fund and would dance for up to 1,638 hours to stand a chance of winning the pot. Frantic couples would one-by-one pass out from the unyielding endurance test, and the ‘winner’ would literally be the last one standing. Unfortunately for them, the scrupulous promoters were the only ones who really stood to prosper.

We are told that “this play is not about dance”, and this soon becomes evident. Three misfortunate pairs become marionettes; their strings controlled by manipulative and stagey promoter, Mel Carney (Jos Vantyler). We hear a synopsis of their life story; where they’ve come from, what they’ve been through and why this means so much to them (sound familiar?). These tales of woe influence the direction of the audience’s favouritism and who they wind up rooting for (ring any bells?). As the gruelling regime continues, and the dance goes on and on, contestants are pushed to their limits, many overcome by the ordeal. Towards the finale, the dance marathon runners pass out, go mad or unclothe themselves. In turn, this mania is embraced by the crowds who love a good show (ring-a-ling-a-ling!).

So yes, this play draws parallels not only between the Great Depression and the current recession, but also between entertainment trends. In the 1930s we had dance marathons and, nearly a century later, we have X Factor and a whole host of reality TV shows, depicting the desperate and entertaining the masses through their plight for fulfilment (“This will change my life!” / “I’m worth so much more than this!” / “Life drew me a poor hand!” … and so on).

The play’s witty writing and snappy dialogue builds a sense of hopelessness. Kyle directs with an ear for the play’s dark humour and simultaneously captures the sinister undertones. Each character embarks on a personal journey – one which we follow with wide-eyed anticipation. Our involvement as audience closely mirrors the spectators of the 1930s, worryingly so. Our journey as observer is as uncomfortable as the contestants’, and the pleasure we encounter grates against our sense of moral standing. On the downside, however, the play is quite predictable. One knows the outcome way in advance of the actual ending. The first act is more enjoyable than the second, and the latter half of the production could be cut down, without compromising the messaging or storyline. Certain aspects become a bit repetitive and the last half hour is long-winded; dare I say indulgent. 

All in all, this is a sturdy ensemble piece. The play demands physical and emotional commitment, which the talented cast fully embrace. Certain actors outshine others but generally Dead on her Feet is brilliantly acted (ignoring a couple of questionable accents) and each actor brings something different to the performance. I particularly enjoyed Ben Whybrow’s performance of McDade (a reinvented McCoy from They Shoot Horses, Dont They?). Whybrow’s natural and engaging performance is subtle, moving and totally believable. However, his acting style seems slightly removed from the rest of the cast, who display a more dramatic undertaking when it comes to their own character work. Regardless, the merging of the two methods somehow works, probably because McDade’s intention is to document the activity whilst hanging onto his integrity. In a sense, McDade is standing at a distance, looking in at these lost souls, which is therefore reflected in Whybrow’s approach. Kelly Gibson’s foulmouthed and hard-done-by Bonnie simmers with infectious energy, whilst Vanntyler’s Mel Carney is a tour-de-force that reaches boiling point on several occasions. Carney is a ruthless promoter hiding behind a crocodile smile and Vanntyler’s performance demands attention – sometimes uncomfortably so (but I think that’s the point!).

For the most part, the choreography is effective in conveying a sense of manic desperation. The movement work is clever and the choreography helps us envisage the life of those entering dance marathons. By the end of the show, I was thoroughly worn out – just watching them made me tired! However, the movement is sporadically sloppy. There are moments when the choreography is clumsy and haphazard, which looks under-rehearsed as opposed to intentional. Also, I believe the scenes offered scope for even more play and imagination.

Overall, this is a great play – it just takes a while to get going. There are effective juxtapositions from the dramatic to the real. However, I found the second act a bit too intense; there is never really a respite from the shouting and mania playing out before us. That being said, this is a moving, unsettling, heart-rending piece of theatre. You will go on a journey with them, and you will leave the theatre exhausted.

Date reviewed: Friday 5th October 2012

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