With the faux celebrity and definitely non-faux cruelty of shows like The X-Factor beaming out of television screens in Austerity Britain, it's probably no surprise that John Kander and Fred Ebb's Steel Pier (at the Union Theatre until 24 November) follows hard on the worn out heels of Dead on her Feet (reviewed here) at the Arcola Theatre. Both focus on the marathon dance craze that swept Depression America with its easy, but ephemeral, promise of the riches of celebrity.
Rita Racine (Sarah Galbraith) dreams of her house on Ocean Drive retiring after one last marathon under the eagle eye of host Mick Hamilton (Ian Knauer) to whom she is (unbeknownst to the other competitors) married. Rita is tired of life on her feet, tired of the cruel fraud of their rigged competitions and tired of Mick. As if dropped from the heavens, stunt pilot Bill Kelly (Jay Rincon) pursues her, woos her and just too-good-to-be-trues her, becoming her dream man, as they dance and drag themselves round the floor, racking up the hours. Bill seems oblivious of anything but Rita, but for the other contestants, it's a matter of life and death, as they seek the $2000 that will put food on the table until the next marathon rolls into town.
Accompaned by Angharad Sanders' excellent band and backing singers in beautiful ivory frocks, songs both entertain (for the baying crowd in the music hall and the radio audiences at home) and explain the desperation of the dancers, hallucinating as fatigue overcomes them and they collapse to be (literally) dragged off stage. The ensemble numbers work best, with splendid choreography in a space barely larger than a tube train carriage. Tart with a heart, Shelby Stevens (Aimie Atkinson) belts out the one showstopper, Everybody's Girl, to a great reception, underlining the strange disparity between the strength of vocals from the women and the men.
Steel Pier was nominated for plenty of awards, but ran for only three months on Broadway in 1997 and it's not hard to see why. It's often deadly serious about social problems and their impact on ordinary men and women, yet makes the men and women so ordinary and so bound by their circumstances that we pity them when they scrabble for the coins thrown from the crowd, but never really learn to love them - we just don't care as much as we ought to when they drop to the floor and are cleared away like so much human rubbish. And the denouement, though an unexpected twist, left me with more questions than answers.
Photograph Claire Bilyard