Back in the USA of The Hungry Thirties, there were no Jerry Springer style “Nuts 'n' Sluts” shows. The public's thirst for cruel diversions was slaked by dance marathons - a bearpit into which were pitched those desperate for fame and money, to perform for those glad to revel in the spectacle of seeing people one notch below them down at the bottom of society's ladder of inopportunity. One of those gruesome circuses is the setting for Dead On Her Feet (at the Arcola Theatre until 3 November) – a play nevertheless as much about the 21st century's great recession as the 20th century's.
Mel Carney, a huckster straight out of The Music Man (via Lyle Lanley in The Simpsons), pitches up in Pulaski Falls, a small town with a factory long since closed down in the backwash of the Wall Street Crash and possessing (natch) the requisite demographic. Soon he's spouting the rhetoric of The Big Society, with locals cleaning up the ballroom rewarded by acquiring some self-respect (if not actual dollars), while he greases the necessary palms. He hires a drifter called McDade as the muscle (and the conscience) of the hall and soon assembles three misfit couples to dance to the, well, if not quite death, something very close.
In a uniformly strong cast, Jos Vantyler's conman Carney is a wonderfully well-judged mix of the charming and grotesque, the humorous and horrific – and just as trapped as his stooges on the floor. Ben Whybrow's aspirant writer and Carney's minder, McDade, boils with righteous anger but gets it all down on paper (as Horace McCoy did in his 1935 novella They Shoot Horses Don't They?). Standout amongst the dancers is Sandra Reid, whose initial enthusiasm hides a backstory that is slowly revealed as much in her eyes as in her words – a fine professional debut.
Ron Hutchinson's new play is a parable for our times, a cry not to let ideology and complacency neglect the victims of an economy based on a dog-eat-dog free market, in which the rules are stacked against the many in favour of the few. If the second half includes speeches that topple into speechifying, then a glance on the way home into the empty bars, restaurants and shops of Austerity Britain, is enough to forgive a little excess. The North Wall's production of this dark, dark comedy is ambitious and angry – and also necessary.