Theatre: THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? Newcastle Playhouse

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In Depression-ridden America, the chance to win $1,000 cash just for non-stop dancing (and to be fed and accommodated for the duration) was an irresistible lure. The marathon dances were mass entertainment on a par with the gladiators' games in Roman times, and almost as sadistic. At the dances' peak in the US in the Thirties, one dance could last several months and make big money for its promoters. Horace McCoy's novel (later a film with Jane Fonda) captures the survivalist barbarity in this bizarre convention, and becomes a metaphor for life itself: the last couple on their feet gets the prize.

In both scale and ambition, Neil Murray's production of They Shoot Horses in Newcastle brilliantly creates a sense of event. He uses a live band and a large cast of extras so the stage is crowded with first hopeful, then dismally shuffling couples. Time passes in skilfully handled, choreographic shifts, and near the beginning he pulls off a breathtaking coup de theatre, when the action freezes and we are given a chilly glimpse of the future, with one contestant, Gloria, lying dead at the end of the pier with her partner Robert, who has a smoking gun in his hand.

As the MC, Rocky, Peter Grayer is the production's linchpin, starting with genial bonhomie and gradually being revealed as an oleaginous manipulator, remorselessly exploiting the crowd-pulling potential of the dancers and utterly lacking the humanity his showmanship trades on.

Ray Herman's adaptation drip feeds the individual stories of the hopefuls with uneven skill and the acting errs on the broad and bold side. There is plenty of cliche here, but propounded with such enthusiasm that it's hard to remain impervious. And to offset the weaker aspects, the evening is punctuated with some shattering moments: when Ruby, six months pregnant and on the point of collapse, is forced to sing "The Moon Belongs to Everyone", or when Gloria admits that her period is 10 days late, and we realise that not only has Rocky made her pregnant but just how long they've all been there. You emerge at the end of the performance feeling that you have really lived through some of their 1,750 hours of the dance.

This production is another fine example of the imaginative programming and bold aesthetic that Northern Stage is pursuing at the Playhouse under the leadership of Alan Liddiard.

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