Nobody’s Baby – The World’s Greatest Show
London, Royal Opera House, Floral Hall
27 July 2014
This was the ROH Floral Hall as we have never seen it, decked out in fading bunting, draped all over in the red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes – welcome to depression-era Knoxville and the 1935 National Dance Finals. It’s a marathon event with a huge cash prize of $1000 and all the contestants have to do is dance day in, day out for 45 minutes in every hour and wait for everybody else to drop – “One Fall and Out” say the signs. And that could take 6 weeks or up to 5 months.
Arthur Pita takes us right back to the 1930’s and the madness of desperate couples giving their all in the vain hope of a better life, and those pimping a living off the spectacle. If you saw the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, then you rather know what to expect, but the brief programme slip says something about the phenomenon, banned in 1937, and the show fills in the rest in a glorious mix of tongue-in-cheek fun and pathos to reflect what happened in reality.
The contestants are made up of 8 professional dancers (4 couples) mixed in with nearly 30 amateur or ‘community’ dancers – a real variety of ages and abilities. The contestants are managed by stern Floor Judge, Alexander Varona, and the equally stern Nurse of Valentina Golfieri – not paid enough to bother and anyway she knows she is there just to keep contestents going rather than do what might be best for them. And presiding over all is Ewan Wardrop’s Master of Ceremonies – a monstrous confection full of false sincerity, tireless bonhomie, razzmatazz and an inexhaustible set of loud jackets. His domain is a 10 ft podium overlooking all and next to the sign recording the number of hours danced, which goes up in fits and starts with the action.
The interval comes after they have been dancing about 600 hours and by then most contestants are out and we are down to the final 8 and delirium and the staggers are starting to set in. Is the pregnant lady pregnant? A couple, egged on by the MC, get married in Cellophane costumes (at 2500 hours and don’t ask about the first night) and Daisy Dee Harper, the buxom starlet professional, bombs out big time. Perhaps what I admire most is all the rich detail of the plot and back stories – it’s not a short show but at no time did I think anything could be tightened – it’s beautifully honed and observed. I won’t ruin the end but at 3556 hours there is a winner, but long since the fun and entertainment has been replaced by admiration for those who did it for real and the dancers on the night – throughout constantly on the move – bouquets to all.
We don’t give stars but this is a 4- or even 5-star show and deserves to tour the UK and well beyond. Pita’s name is not so well known as it should be – I think this will change that. There are no more shows scheduled yet – but catch it when there are. We might also hope that it’s recorded for DVD and TV. Classy work indeed.