As inevitable at the scene of a crash as flashing lights, blankets and well-meant cups of tea are the onlookers – crowds gaping mawkishly at the wreckage, surveying the horror and perhaps trying to imagine what led up to it. So it was, too, in the aftermath of the US economic crash of 1929; crowds would flock to dance marathons and pay to gawp at exhausted contestants each trying to bag a cash prize for being the last pair standing after days of non-stop dancing (and in a competition that had more than likely been rigged from the outset). These sobering spectacles were a true cottage industry, at their peak employing an estimated 20,000 people from promoters to contestants; and Ron Hutchinson’s new play is searing analysis of what made them whirl.
Three couples enter a dance marathon each hoping to outlast the others and claim a $500 prize that promoter Mel Carney has no intention of awarding. For as long as there are paying punters come to watch the increasingly outlandish feats of endurance, Carney will instruct the couples to keep dancing. It’s a simple question of supply and demand; for audience-consumers motivated by a sense that when times are tough, it’s perversely reassuring to ogle at those who’ve got it worse. Lingering behind their voyeurism is also a sense of hope, the dream of what might happen to the person who does scoop the jackpot, the trunk of cash suspended tantalisingly out of reach in Barry Kyle’s production. The same psychology might explain car-crash onlookers and magazine features with lottery winners – victim or lucky millionaire, it could be you.
That sense of the dance as a focal point of peer-judgement dates back to long before the Depression; even Rousseau in 1754 wrote of the village dance as emblematic of the ills of social competition. Kyle’s production transmutes that ideology into a modern context; video-interviews with contestants and a modern soundtrack make this a lesson in socio-economic history for the X Factor generation. The first in-house production, in its eighth year, from Oxford’s North Wall Theatre, it’s a considerable achievement for a team comprised largely of emerging artists (both cast and crew) from the UK and US, many of whom are still in training, marshalled by the more established – and twice Olivier-nominated – Kyle.
Ben Whybrow and Lloyd Thomas impress as two of the contestants, and Jos Vantyler battles magnificently and maturely with a part for which he’s at least a dozen years too young. But where there’s boom, bust is sure to follow – surprisingly lacklustre choreography and a video design largely obscure to a good chunk of the audience bring the production crashing down. There might have been something unsettling about a troupe of young artists slogging their way through a show about the toughness of making it in a bitch of an industry in the midst of an economic slump, but for all its youthful energy and the wit of Hutchinson’s script, Dead On Her Feet always feels a couple of steps behind the pace.