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Review: Dead on Her Feet

Posted on 08 October 2012 by Devawn Wilkinson

“I’m gonna fill these seats with the biggest losers in the world!” declares unscrupulous show promoter Mel Carny, eyes and smile widening as he pronounces the chilling mission statement that is both an ugly threat and glittering promise. In the disturbing world that Dead on Her Feet inhabits, director Barry Kyle and writer Ron Hutchinson blur the already-indistinct line between sadomasochism and show-business with their examination of a horrific real-life craze that swept 1920s America, loosely inspired by Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. Keep moving at all times! Knees must not hit the floor! This is the Dance Marathon in a Depression-ravaged dead-end town and it isn’t going to be pretty – but that, as Carny keeps telling us, is exactly what we want to see.

The Arcola Theatre is the ideal backdrop for this blood-sport disguised as dance-a-thon, the exposed architecture and brutal concrete trapping us in a dilapidated ballroom that, despite Carny’s promises, will inevitably bring about more misery than magic.  As much guilty voyeurs as audience members, we follow the action along with enigmatic and seemingly detached McDade, (an absorbing performance from Ben Whybrow), embittered ex-soldier and aspiring writer turned bouncer/doctor/whatever-Carny-wants-him-to-be for the rare luxury of three meals a day and a roof over his head. Moral ambiguity and anguish abound as three desperate couples fight it out (or rather, dance it out) for the suitcase of $500 that hangs (literally) over their heads. There’s the feisty and world-weary Bonnie (Kelly Gibson) a sparky blonde with a dark secret, who pairs with big-talking Marathon-veteran Mike (Sam Trueman) for convenience only.  Rita and Myron (Victoria Fischer and Rowan Schlosberg) tug heartstrings as the home-town sweethearts whose hopeful innocence dissolves painfully under the strain. Particularly powerful performances (despite more minor roles) come from Sandra Reid as a fiercely passionate single mother and Lloyd Thomas’ damaged delivery boy, a couple brought together by fate and the deceptive lure of a brighter future.

There may be glittering lights and jazzy moves but MC Mel Carny proves to be the real attraction here, played to soulless ‘the-show-must-go-on-until-someone-dies’ perfection by the mesmerising Jos Vantyler. A tirelessly manipulative master puppeteer with the face of a ventriloquist’s dummy, he is as grotesque and gorgeous a spectacle as the whole show put together. All glassy eyes and rosy cheeks, complete with a friendly shark smile and a gun in his jacket, he tap-dances with ever-more-furious dedication as couples collapse around him.

Merciless though it is, Dead On Her Feet actually suffers from a distinct lack of visible suffering. Of course, highly-acclaimed Hutchinson’s dialogue is undeniably taut, quick and clever – fit to burst with wisecracks, smouldering put-downs and noir-ish one-liners. Carny’s speeches in particular contain a horrifying poetry, dealing out emotional blunt force trauma with a hysterical quasi-religious zeal. Yet, as the show approached its climax, I couldn’t help but long for (with the exact blood-lust Hutchinson so keenly identifies) a far greater concluding cataclysm. Considering the dark promise of the title, everyone seems to get off rather lightly. There are also the somewhat irritating anachronisms – Converse shoes, denim jackets (on a woman in the 1920s?) and conspicuously modern music – directorial choices meant to draw connections between economic crisis then and now, but serving more as jarring distractions.  In the end, Dead On Her Feet makes a far more incisive commentary on the unsettlingly carnivorous exchange between spectator and performer than the ravages of capitalism it intends to condemn.

Dead on Her Feet is playing at Arcola Theatre until 3 November. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website.

Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn is a London-based writer, performance poet and aspiring theatre-maker. As a reviewer, she has written for A Younger Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East and Exeunt Magazine.

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Review: Love’s Labour’s Lost

Posted on 20 March 2012 by Laura Turner

One of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, Love’s Labour’s Lost precedes the hilarity of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing, but there are foreshadowings of the sparring lovers, mistaken identities and witty women that feature in both subsequent plays. Northern Broadsides’ fun and colourful new production embraces the individuality of the text

Love’s Labour’s Lost marks the company’s twentieth anniversary production. With a two-decade heritage showcasing regional talent and developing a unique ‘Northern’ voice, this production is no exception. The versatile company use their natural Northern accents throughout (excepting Andrew Vincent, who performs a hilarious turn as the vivacious Spanish Armardo) and utilise their talents to provide an atmospheric soundtrack to the performance that effectively evokes the 1930s setting of the production and the tongue-in-cheek tone of the performance.

As the play opens, we meet the King of Navarre and his companions as they agree on a vow of celibacy, fasting and study. Matt Connor as the quick-witted Berowne is immediately striking and captures a delicate balance of cockiness and likability that is mirrored in his romantic counterpart, Catherine Kinsella’s equally affable and intelligent Rosaline. As soon as the Princess of France arrives with her ladies in waiting, we are in the familiar territory of temptation, teasing and cross-purposes. There are strong performances from all four sets of lovers, but Hester Arden and Jos Vantyler as Maria and Longeville sizzle with a particularly believable romantic longing and unbridled passion.

Director (and Founder of the company) Barrie Rutter embues this story of eight ill-fated lovers with all the necessary humour. There is a real freshness to his approach, with anecdotal set pieces of side-splitting humour such as the appearance of the king and his attendants in bizarre steampunk-inspired Russian outfits for the play’s Muscovite Masque. All the musical interludes used throughout are strong, both establishing atmosphere and punctuating the comic effect of countless scenes. Even the mummers’ play at the end of this two-and-a-half hour epic manages to entertain, as the rustic country yokel characters perform their version of the ‘Nine Worthies’. Foreshadowing the play-within-a-play of A Midsummer Night’s Drea,, Rutter brings out the physical comedy here, with Dean Whatton giving a hilarious turn as the snake-strangling Hercules and Emily Aston presiding over proceedings with a humourously snobbish air as the beleagured Jacquenetta.

A vast cast of 17 populate the stage with vivacity and endless enthusiasm, and not a moment of this production feels dull or tired despite the inherent tribulations of touring, with the company already half way through a four-month schedule. If this production, the culmination of 20 years of touring, is anything to go by, the next 20 years are looking very bright indeed for Northern Broadsides. If you’re anywhere north of Peterborough, this is not to be missed.

Love’s Labour’s Lost was at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough, and continues its tour of the UK until 5th May, next stopping at Buxton Opera House from 29 to 31 March. For more information on all tour dates and to buy tickets, visit Northern Broadsides’ website.

Image credit: Northern Broadsides

Laura Turner

Laura Turner

Laura trained as a writer with Hull Truck Theatre, BBC New Talent and the Royal Court Theatre. She has worked extensively with touring theatre company Chapterhouse, where she is currently Writer in Residence. Laura has previously written for BBC EastEnders: E20 and her adaptation of Jane Eyre toured theatres with Hull Truck Theatre Company at the start of 2013. She is now working on an original play for the theatre, as well as projects with Bolton Octagon, Middle Child Theatre and The Ashton Group, Cumbria. She has been long-listed for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwrighting and the Adrienne Benham Award.

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