Steel Pier at the Union Theatre
Bright lights, vivacious women and a dance marathon – but no Bruce Forsyth! Paul Taylor-Mills has brought “Strictly” to the stage, without the annoying add-ons, in his production of David Thompson’s Steel Pier. The musical (music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb) opened in the Union Theatre last week and will only run until 24th November – so get your tickets quick!
Set in Atlantic City, 1933, Steel Pier intertwines the fantastical with the real, in a rather whimsy plot that follows the ghostly concept of “borrowed time” while uncovering the truth to the brutal nature of show-business. After winning a raffle ticket to dance with ageing celebrity Rita Racine (Sarah Galbraith) and then crashing to his death at the Trenton Air Show, Stunt Pilot Bill Kelly (Jay Ricon) is given “three weeks” to complete his earthly unfinished business – what exactly this is, apart from to dance with Racine, isn’t very clear.
More of a concrete floor than a stage, the set was small, intimate and interactive. Aside from a few, rather obtrusive, industrial metal pillars (which unfortunately blocked a complete view) the stage was the room and the actors performed in the centre of it – bordered by the audience. With the combination of the energy of the dancers, the volume of the music and the closeness to the actors, the fourth wall was continually broken. On the one hand you were the audience of Mills’ Steel Pier, but on the other you really were the audience to the Atlantic City 1933 dance marathon.
And what a dance marathon it was. Presented by the suave Mick Hamilton (Ian Knauer), whose true character as an evil omnipotent puppeteer was slowly uncovered with each scene, Mills’s cast excelled in the portrayal of the Steel Pier dance competition (where couples danced for 45 minutes every hour for over 300 hours).
In the opening scenes dresses flicked, heels tapped and curls bounced in a series of sharp, punchy and detailed routines designed by choreographer Richard Jones – which, considering the size of the set, were all the more impressive. As the scenes progressed and fatigue started to take its toll on the competitors, Jones carefully crafted a comic routine (with the aid of some fantastic hair and make-up by Natalie Price) where dresses swayed, feet dragged and heads lolled. The choreography unearthed the underbelly of show-business – smiles and ease on the surface, body battering, fiercely competitive and desperation driven in reality.
Though Galbraith’s buttery voice hit all the right notes (and powerfully so too), it was Aimee Atkinson’s portrayal of Shelby Stevens and her “Everyone’s Girl” number that stole the show. Small and compact, with the energy of a turbo battery, Atkinson bounded across the stage, shook her behind seductively (she would have made Beyoncé proud) and fell into the laps of the male members of the front row, while brilliantly booting out her slutty ballad. It was, however, her second performance of the song in Act 2, stripped of all the show-business glitz that highlighted Atkinson’s musical gifts. From the vivacious, strong-willed show-girl, Atkinson’s Shelby revealed her insecure, desperate and unhappy self through a melancholy, soft and quavering performance of the same lyrics.
Atkinson is part of a strong cast; the actors and their strong musical and dancing abilities are undeniable – which is fortunate, as by itself the plot is lacking and at times simply farcical. Broken down therefore, there are strengths and weaknesses, but overall it is the cast that pull through and produce a thoroughly entertaining, energetic and dance-packed performance that is well worth a visit.
Steel Pier is at the Union Theatre until 24th November 2012. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.