As the financial crisis continues, the Great Depression continues to be a rich source of material for writers, and a thought-provoking basis for revivals. Recently Oxford hosted a big-name 42nd Street, but Ron Hutchinson’s gripping, and ultimately draining new play about the 1930s dance marathon craze is worlds away from the red carpet and tap of Broadway.
Initially, the play draws on a rich American dramatic heritage, paying homage by turns to Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in its combination of fast repartee, knowing meta-theatricality and political acuity. Jos Vantyler is a tour-de-force as the promoter Mel Carney, swinging from menace to bonhomie and back, and never taking his eye off the stage around him. For Carney, everything is an act; even his grandstanding speeches about American patriotism are well-rehearsed and timed to perfection. Meanwhile, his ‘dancers’- a motley parade of the poor, the disappointed and the delusional - are given life by a strong ensemble cast. Kelly Gibson stands out in particular as the mouthy rebel Bonnie, coming across almost like Madonna in her mid-1980s heyday, all ripped tights and gum-blowing attitude.
The play makes high demands of its actors in the second act, and while they more than rise to the challenge, it gradually becomes exhausting to watch. Characters grow demented as the pace redoubles, and it all slides dangerously close to melodrama. Nevertheless, such malign hysteria is well within the tradition of great US playwriting, and in this case leads to an unforeseen final twist. This is visceral theatre, seldom subtle, but never less than compelling.