For many years now, there has been a rich tradition of mining popular Eighties movies for musical material – Ghost, Sister Act, The Bodyguard, Dirty Dancing and yes, Footloose. (I’m still waiting patiently for Back to the Future.) With a huge fan base already in place, add a sprinkle of a star casting here and there, and you have a perfectly profitable piece of theatre. However, it is always a tricky line to tread when you are trying to adapt such well-beloved movies into pieces that work on stage, and it doesn’t always transfer so simply.
The story of Footloose is classic musical fodder of course – the young rebellious Ren (Luke Baker), who “Can’t Stand Still”, moves from bustling Chicago to sleepy Bomont when his father leaves him and his mother (a brilliantly versatile Nicky Swift) . But there’s one problem – in Bomont, dancing is banned, and so begins one young man’s battle to bring the boogie back to Bomont. Hindered by the strict preacher Reverend Moore (David J. Higgins), the distrustful residents, and aggressive country kids, Ren is on a crusade to disrupt and destroy the hegemony in Bomont, aided by the Reverand’s beautiful, but broken daughter Ariel (a soulful Hannah Price). Ren is portrayed fantastically by Luke Baker, whose witty and exceptionally energetic performance really pulls the story along. He is the real heart of this production, and doesn’t fail to live up to (and perhaps even sometimes surpass!) the Bacon legacy.
In this version of Footloose, we have an almost quasi-jukebox musical, treating us to some rearrangements of the classics from the film, mixed with some new musical material. Whilst the classic tracks are the real toe-tappers that get the audience jiggling, there are a few new songs that work well too, but they seem to be a little few and far between sadly. Also, in keeping with the recent trend, this is an actor/musician show, where almost every actor is showcasing their skills on at least one, sometimes many, instruments. Huge kudos to the entire cast, and particularly Tom Hier who not only played the bullish Chuck with a delightfully layered and fire-y performance, but was almost constantly on stage playing keys or guitar.
The set is a functional, ragtag bag of Bomont’s odds and ends, slipping easily between church, diner, small town home, rail tracks, and school. The ever present huge crucifix dominates all, leaving us in no uncertain terms about who has the real power in Bomont. However, the first Act is almost as disjointed as the junkyard-style set. We have flashes of all our favourite Footloose scenes - the cops pulling Ren over for playing music too loud, the dangerous game of ‘chicken’ played on tractors, even the iconic warehouse dancing is transferred to the school gym. But, you quickly get the feeling if you weren’t a big Footloose fan, this would have all flown right over your head. The direction from Racky Plews is incredible; a real masterclass in effective blocking (particularly as the actor-musicians are pretty much omnipresent) and crafty use of set and props. But it’s so clever and busy, we perhaps miss a lot of the real story here.
There are a few other mis-steps too. Ren’s first friend in town Willard (Gareth Gates) is portrayed in such an odd way, it almost borders on offensive. Probably more a fault of the writing than anything else, Gates gargoyles his way through this muddled character, not that his super fans seem to mind (particularly when his denim overalls are torn off to reveal his shiny six pack). This production has Gates playing to his strengths, his singing and physical comedy are both great, but it’s a shame that it has made a mockery of the beloved character from the film. This coupled with an abundance of crotch-based gags seem like crude, weak attempts to ‘jolly along’ the show, which is actually at its heart, a story with depth and real honest emotion. Although this production is a little unbalanced, the audience were without fail up on their feet at the finale. Indeed, there are many moments to love; Ren throwing himself about the school gym, Ariel and Ren screaming at trains, roller skating shenanigans and of course the classic final dance. If you’re after a good girl’s night out, want to watch some incredibly talented actor-musos, or simply love Footloose this one’s for you.
Milton Keynes Theatre
7:30pm (2:30pm matinee)
17th October – 22nd October 2016
Then continuing on tour.
© Carly Halse - Reviewed on Monday 17th October 2016.