"Why won’t you give my dad a job?" asks the boy with the placard in the famous Depression era photograph, displayed in the opening montage of Dead On Her Feet.
The question is not dissimilar to the thousands of Tweets that bombarded David Cameron when he appeared on Twitter for the first time on Saturday night, highlighting all the more poignantly the current relevance of this play, set in the desperate recession of 1930s America and exploring how far people will go for the hope of a better life.
Dance Marathons, the challenge of dancing non-stop for as long as possible, often for many days, were a real-life craze throughout the 20s and 30s. They offered ordinary folks the opportunity to win big bucks by allowing themselves to be shamelessly exploited by an unscrupulous entertainment industry. Sound familiar? So far, so 21st century. Instead of bucking barley for their 50 and found, many itinerant American dreamers crisscrossed the country taking part in contest after contest, convinced that the next one would be their chance to hit the big time.
The performances in Barry Kyle's production are consistently, almost overwhelmingly, strong. Jos Vantyler appals as Mel Carney, the inexhaustible promoter of questionable morals and even more questionable sanity, veering precipitously from threatening bully to wheedling charmer with extraordinary acuity. The three couples he assembles to take the challenge march to the beat of his drum: Sandra Reid makes a real impact as Velma, alternately tearful with despair and luminous with hope, while Kelly Gibson is terrifyingly self-possessed as Bonnie, a girl whose neglected past makes her forever tough.
The industrial feel of the Arcola provides the perfect setting for a piece set in a disused ballroom, the bare brick walls and steel girders in stark contrast with the characters’ dreams of Hollywood and stardom. Ron Hutchinson's script seems a little self-aware at times, consciously declaiming its moral messages, and although the second half loses pace in some rather worthy speeches the frantic, incessant neediness of the characters maintains and more than returns our emotional investment.
It’s inevitable that there will be some painful consequences to such intensity, and the scene in which we witness the unravelling of vulnerable, anxious Rita (Victoria Fischer) is distressing in the extreme. Nonetheless it is an excellent answer to the question of what people will sacrifice in the pursuit of a dream: more than you could ever imagine.