A nightmare lurking beneath the American Dream

They Shoot Horses Don't They? | Apollo Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture

The dramatic potential of Horace McCoy's stark novella about the marathon dance competitions of the 1930s was spotted years ago. At the end of the Sixties, Sydney Pollack filmed it with Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin as the doomed central couple who come to understand the nightmare lurking beneath the American Dream. A decade later, the RSC staged it.

The dramatic potential of Horace McCoy's stark novella about the marathon dance competitions of the 1930s was spotted years ago. At the end of the Sixties, Sydney Pollack filmed it with Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin as the doomed central couple who come to understand the nightmare lurking beneath the American Dream. A decade later, the RSC staged it.

The alarmingly high wage bill needed for such a vast cast deters most companies, but the piece is fast becoming a staple of the National Youth Theatre, who can afford it on the simple grounds that they don't pay their actors. Indeed, you could argue, that their very appearance here lends an ironic twist to the tale of the merciless exploitation of America's hopeful youth. Both text and production make you think: "Which of these kids is going to make it?"

So it's an adroit choice and not just because of the unusually large numbers involved. Most of the key roles are close to the actors' real ages and almost without exception, the weakest performances come from those unlucky enough to be light-years away from their characters' age and experience and who have been allowed to teeter over into caricature.

The responsibility lies with the director, Ed Wilson. Professional theatre is crammed with ineffectual directors who could no more mould an actor's performance as fly a plane, but professionals learn to act their way out of trouble. NYT actors, however, have talent but neither technique nor experience, and while Wilson can't be blamed for not marshalling an entire company of obvious Greats-in-the-Making, seeing some of them flounder through lack of direction is worrying.

The company visibly captures the accumulated exhaustion and distress, but Wilson's production fatally sides and slides with them. He should be building tension, but the action becomes enervated. Even when the few, increasingly desperate couples remain, everyone looks cramped. However instead of turning this to advantage with a dramatic sense of claustrophobia, matters are further let down by the set and lighting. The design should convey the enclosed hell. Proceedings are dominated by a cyclorama that only really works in the final five minutes.

The NYT is currently in crisis and is casting about for sponsorship. For the sake of the hard-working actors, I wish them well, but facts must be faced. When the NYT was founded it was unique. This is no longer the case. Disregarding the growing accent upon youth drama workshops, there is the National Theatre's National Connections initiative that creates magnificent opportunities for youngsters, and, equally importantly, first-rate writers. Scandalously, since British Telecom failed to see the undoubted artistic, and educational worth of that scheme, they too are searching for sponsorship. For those lucky enough to be playing the NYT's leading roles - all of whom acquit themselves with aplomb, notably Emily Pollet who shows real promise - the NYT philosophy of (at its simplest) providing an opportunity to be seen at the end of the summer school is obviously worthwhile. But this flagship production, for all its enthusiasm, has vigour but way too little theatrical rigour.

To 16 Sept, 020-7494 5070

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