“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.