Dying to achieve fame a fortune: Dead on Her Feet at the Arcola Theatre previewed

Play tells the story of 1930s dance marathons in the US, a disturbing craze driven by desperation in the Great Depression

�We all know times are hard, but just what would you do to get a bit of extra money?

Almost everyone will have seen the desperation of the talent show contestants appearing on our screens every Saturday evening for the last few weeks.

But it is not a desperation to have their voices heard, their music appreciated. No, when the beaming judges ask them why they have subjected themselves to a process which, more often than not, will leave them humiliated in front of an audience of millions, they say: “I have always wanted to be famous.”

Because everyone – no one more than the expensively clad judges – knows fame equals money. And when times are hard, risking a little bit of humiliation for a lot of money is an equation which makes sense.

But back in the Thirties, the last decade when the world was plunged into an economic crisis of this magnitude, it wasn’t just a little humiliation people were willing to suffer in front of an audience for the chance of a bit of extra cash.

No, it was blisters, sleep deprivation and possible death as they took part in dance marathons that could last for weeks or even months.

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The desperation which drove people to push their bodies to the extremes of exhaustion will be explored in Dead on Her Feet at the Arcola for the next month.

Set in 1933, it follows the story of six young people desperate to earn fame, fortune and the next week’s rent by dancing the night away – all against the backdrop of a world in financial freefall and while being watched by a ravenous audience.

The play’s parallels with today are clear, says Jos Vantyler, who plays the out-of-town promoter exploiting the contestants’ plight.

“It is about the extremes that people go to for money,” he explained. “It is about the depression, it is about reality television.”

But while it may hold up a mirror to today, Dead on their Feet will also remind audiences that those caught in America’s Depression era were struggling far more than their contemporary counterparts.

Vantyler says: “One of the reasons people took part was not just money – you got three meals a day and a roof over your head.”

So why then did these shows draw the crowds? It might sound horrendous, but dance marathons became so popular and drew so many people prepared to try their luck for the sake of a few dollars that measures were bought in to ban them.

“‘Misery loves company’,” suggests Vantyler. “In the depression, people flocked to see these dance marathons because if you were paying to watch it, you weren’t as badly off as the dancers were.”

n Dead on Her Feet is at the Arcola Theatre, Ashwin Street, Dalston, until November 3. Tickets from �12. For more information or to book, visit www.arcolatheatre.com or call 020 7503 1646.