Review by Paul Nelson
I FEEL privileged and carry a certain amount of pride in that I was invited
to witness They Shoot Horses Don't They?, a play with music by VT Simpson
which marks the Final year BA (Hons) acting course at the Italia Conti drama
school. The event is open to the public, is playing at the Landor Theatre
in North Clapham and runs until March 9.
The play hasn't been seen since 2000 when it was presented by the National Youth Theatre and it proves to be an ideal vehicle as a showcase.
It also gives the audience the godlike power of spotting future theatre talent, of which there seems to be a lot about.
They Shoot Horses Don't They? is an adaptation of a short novel noir by Horace McCoy recalling the Depression in America in 1935 when poverty drove young desperate people to take part in a dance marathon until they dropped, the winners receiving a thousand dollars between them.
Anyone who has read the autobiography of the film and stage star June Havoc (she was the real-life child star who did a runner from her mother's clutches personified as Baby June in the musical Gypsy) will be familiar with these marathons as the book chronicles just such an event with skill and clarity. In June Havoc's case coming second meant no money at all, as they were charged for food and laundry and the prize money thus disappeared. Her book, Early Havoc, is recommended reading.
The play takes place in a dance hall on the Santa Monica pier in Los Angeles and focuses on three couples. A married pair of Italians, Mario and Ruby, she is expecting a baby; Vee and Mary, a couple who meet at the dance hall and team up as partners for the event; and Robert and Gloria who previously met briefly, he an aspiring film director, she an utterly destroyed personality having been previously used and abused by a succession of people and events.
The play opens with the MC Rocky Gravo, a scheming showman out to make a buck by cashing in on the destruction of the contestants setting the scene. There is a fear running through the contestants that theirs may follow the Oklahoma dance marathon which lasted 11 weeks.
Rocky is a heartless monster and has flings not only with the two vocalists from the accompanying band, but even when she is almost senseless with tiredness, Gloria.
The dancing is interrupted once a day by Derby Time, a mad canter round the dance floor to further weaken the already bushed dancers and provide a spectator sport almost as cruel as watching Christians fed to lions.
Short breaks are allowed once an hour when the whistle blows and the number of dancers dwindles as they are disqualified either by collapse or even for just touching the floor with their knees.
To whip up interest in the lacklustre spectators Rocky even hits on the idea that for a $75 dollar bonus each, two of the dancers get married on the dance floor.
A complication for Robert is an elderly woman in the audience who takes a shine to him and arranges sponsorship (shoes, shirts, laundry). The implication is clear and Gloria senses a similar destruction for him as she has experienced in her own past.
Through all this there are flashes of a trial where Robert is accused of murdering Gloria and as the play progresses his motive for so doing becomes clear, though he denies murder, it was, as with the plough horse on his grandfather's farm who broke a leg, a mercy killing at Gloria's request, hence the title.
The intervention of a religious group of women stops the proceedings and Rocky gets away without having to pay the prize money.
The plot is quite thick and some of it strikes one as being far-fetched. For instance, along with Robert's trial for murder, Mario is arrested for being a jailbreaker, serving 50 years for robbery with violence that had included a killing. Two suspected murderers in one dance hall? It stretches the point a bit.
However, the cast make a splendid show out of it all, and certainly for students there is enough here for them to get their teeth into.
There is a very funny scene where Vee and Mary are married by a holy roller, both of them oblivious to the event through exhaustion, which brings the house down.
Among the splendid performances (everyone in the piece is excellent by the way) the ones who stood out for me were Kacy Chapman and Richard Firth as the abrasive Gloria and no-hoper Robert (the parts played by Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin in the film version), Gary Capelin doubling as the drummer and Lieutenant Stedna and Ben Richardson as the Reverend Oscar Gilder.
There are some spritely appearances by Sarah Everard, particularly as the glamorous visiting movie star Jean Mercer and the Spirit of America, and Anna Mastrodonato gives a very convincing and moving performance as Ruby.
We should be hearing from the members of this cast in the future, they all were in fine voice.
Er, I didn't mention it was a musical play did I? Well it's one you won't leave humming the tunes but your ears will be ringing with the excitement of the evening.
They Shoot Horses Don't They? adapted by VT Simpson from the novel by
Horace McCoy. Music composed by Chris Harrison. Musical Direction Dean Austin.
Dance Direction Jack Murphy. Produced by Italia Conti Theatre School. Directed
by Sue Colgrave.
Noah Rutter (Rocky Gravo), Jeanette Howard (Alice Steinman), Tara Coverdale (Martha Walker), Stacy Permaul (Mary Hawley), Graham Davies (Vee Lovell), Harriet Cobbold (Mrs Layden), Anna Mastrodonato (Ruby Batone), Tom Ingram (Mario Batone), Kacy Chapman (Gloria Beatty), Richard Frith (Robert Sylverton), Sarah Everard (Jean Mercer/Mrs Witcher/Spirit of America), Gary Capelin (Lieutenant Stedna), Ben Richardson (Reverend Oscar Gilder), with the voices of David Bauckham and Tony Hirst. The Band: Piano Dean Austin, Drums Gary Capelin, Flute Jeanette Howard, and Guitar Tom Ingram. Presented at the Landor Theatre, Landor Road, SW9. 020 7733 7276.