They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

The National Youth Theatre presented their version of the classic story in London's West End for a week in September 2000.


The National Youth Theatre concluded their production of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? at The Apollo Theatre in London's West End on Saturday 16 September. The musical completes the series of formats for the novel by Horace McCoy that became a film directed by Sydney Pollack in 1969 and a song by Racing Cars (remember them?) in 1977.

They Shoot Horses programme

The story is an intense examination of the human spirit encapsulated in a dance marathon in 1936 America during the Depression. Set in Los Angeles where unemployment and poverty are rife, and such rituals were seen as financial escape routes by the young at the time.

The lasting impression made by this production was the emotional intensity that the young actors managed to convey throughout the performance. The story starts with Rocky Gravo (played by Tom Padden), the scheming Master of Ceremonies and promoter declaring the event to be a 'Hollywood Party' for all its participants. Mario and Ruby Batone (Gary Shelford and Amanda Hipple), the dance marathon champions from Oklahama are there, along with 121 other couples, to compete for the first prize of $1,000. Gravo persuades them to do a solo spot, and Gary Shelford executes a neat tap routine.

Amongst the other couples are Tim Delap and Emily Pollet as Robert Syverton and Gloria Beatty, the parts played by Michael Sarrazin and Jane Fonda in the film. Thrown together by fate shortly before the contest begins, they form the focus of the piece. The intermittent appearance of Lieutenant Stedna (Joe Armstrong) to question Syverton about a murder makes clear from the start that this may be one musical which does not leave you whistling the tunes.

As the hours while by, the dancers become more and more tired. Rumours spread of the Oklahoma competition that lasted 11 weeks. With short breaks only allowed, the numbers dwindle as anyone whose knees touch the ground is disqualified. Trainers with 'clickers' to wake the slumbering and rulers to measure knee-to-floor distances circulate dispassionately.

To stir up more interest from the paying public, MC Gravo goes back on his word to the pregnant Ruby and instigates a 15-minute Derby. The women hold onto their men by a belt as they run around a roped course while Gravo sings "Happy Feet! I Got Those Happy Feet!" The slow motion enacted during this sequence was perfectly played, with the facial expressions, movements, stumbles and falls capturing the exhausted desperation of the dancers.

The sudden intervention by a religious women's group brings the event to a 'premature' end. After nearly seven weeks of dancing, a bill is passed limiting such events to 24 hours. Gravo appears devastated, but knows he won't have to pay out the $1,000 prize money. Instead, he manages to fob off the remaining six couples with $20 per person - and somehow make them feel grateful.

By this time, Gloria is past caring. Delirious with fatigue, she sits on the pier and explains to Robert how the only way out of her life now is to end it; she has nothing to live for. Yet she lacks the courage to pull the trigger of her gun, and so hands it to Syverton to complete the task.

Syverton recalls time on his grandparents' farm, when the favourite plough-pulling horse fell and broke a leg. How he cried when his grandfather shot it, and listened when his grandmother said it was the kindest thing to do. As Lieutenant Stedna searches exasperatingly for an explanation for this apparently meaningless murder, all Syverton has to offer is "They shoot horses, don't they?"

Film information from The Internet Move Database (www.imdb.com)


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