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Play gives fascinating insight into 1930s dance marathons but runs out of steam

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Dead On Her Feet was always going to be interesting.

The subject matter was fascinating: a forgotten piece of history – dance marathons – brought to life on stage 80 years after they last filled the seats of depression-era entertainment venues.

What’s more, the desperation felt by the down-on-their-luck contestants staying on their feet for days and weeks on end, in the hope of a few dollars with which they could change their lives, will be instantly recognisable to many today.

Of course, it didn’t mean the play itself would be any good – yet the first half was gripping.

I needed to know who was going to win, what Velma’s secret was, what was wrong with Rita and, let’s face it, if anyone was going to die.

Indeed, the last few lines of the first half had me wishing the intermission could be skipped.

But then it lost it; it lost it so badly I could hear my friend shifting in her seat, waiting for the final curtain to fall.

It was almost as if playwright Ron Hutchinson didn’t trust the audience to fully grasp the parallels with today, so decided to bash us on the head with them courtesy of a few speeches. The play completely lost momentum when it should have picked up, which left me bitterly disappointed.

Of course, the performances continued to be as good as they were in the first half,

Importantly – and those who have been forced to sit through two-and-a-half hours of dreadful American accents will understand why – the actors had perfected their 30s drawl, helping move the audience from the heart of Dalston to a small industrial town in the States.

Special mention must also go to Jos Vantyler, who was suitably sleazy as Mel Carney, making a quick buck out of others misfortune, and Kelly Gibson’s hardnosed Bonnie, the instantly likeable heroine.

But was this enough to forgive the second half? I just don’t know.

* Dead on her Feet is at the Arcola Theatre in Ashwin Street, E8, until November 3. Call 020 7503 1646.

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