Over the last couple of years, the parallels between the Great Depression and today’s recession have been vigorously interrogated on stage. After Bluemouth Inc’s interactive Dance Marathon became one of the most talked about productions at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, Arcola Theatre’s announcement of yet another production aligning the struggle of a dance-hall with the everyday endurance-test of a life lived in poverty, I admit to experiencing a moment of reluctance.
Despite this, Ron Hutchinson has brought a certain brooding vitality to the theme in his piece, Dead On Her Feet, presented with a suitably gritty edge by Oxford-based production company The North Wall.
In this dancing competition, there are three couples, each with very different histories. Each character is convincing in a realist sense, but they also represent different catalysts of struggle – from vocational dissatisfaction and claustrophobia, to a masculine pride in any challenge undertaken.
Throughout, the cast takes on these rich roles with boldness. At moments, the characters appeal to the fictional audience of their dance marathon and each actor embraces this meta-fictionality with gusto. Sandra Reid delivers a particularly moving moment as her character, Velma, is brought into the spotlight, smiling shyly as she talks into the mic and looks out nervously into the audience. Kelly Gibson is brilliantly cast as dance contender “Bonnie from Nowhere”, marrying a childlike vulnerability with a seen it all before toughness that is thrilling to watch.
But while this play is about the perseverance of its struggling dancers, it is Jos Vantyler who excels as he brings to life marathon promoter Mel Carney in a performance defined by stamina.
Vantyler’s performance is truly transformative. When the actor first appears in a fit of flamboyance and over-stressed lines, he is far from likable. Yet in a powerful show of character development, Vantyler transforms these qualities from performer to performed, and the result is the rare portrayal of a brilliant villain, evoking real hatred yet absolutely captivating to watch.
Forming a near-constant presence on stage, Vantyler struts, swings and dances his way over the performance space, ultimately portraying a character who is as desperate as the individuals he exploits.