REVIEW: FOOTLOOSE (Sunderland Empire) ★★★★


Footloose tells the story of Ren McCormack, who leaves Chicago with his newly separated mother to move in with his uncle in Bomont, West Virginia. Ren clashes with the locals, especially Rev Moore, who oversees the town council. Following a fatal accident, dancing is banned in Bomont, but Ren takes his friends, including Rev Moore’s daughter Ariel, to a dance hall out of town, and they decide to hold a dance of their own. They need the council’s permission though, and Ren must try to find common ground with Rev Moore.

Originally a 1984 film starring Kevin Bacon, Footloose was one of a clutch of coming-of-age films such as Flashdance, Dirty Dancing and, earlier, Grease where teenagers fought against the small-minded oppression of the adults that surrounded them through the power of dance. First adapted for the Broadway stage in 1998, it doesn’t have the romantic power of Dirty Dancing, nor the unadulterated nostalgia of Grease but what it lacks in story, it makes up for in energy and passion.

This production has a real star in Luke Baker who is an outstanding dancer but also portrays Ren as the epitome of cool. Ren’s dancing helps him let off steam and Baker’s skills, not to mention the choreography by Matthew Cole, make the dancing in Footloose its most dynamic storytelling agent. Baker and Hannah Price who plays Ariel Moore make engaging leads and carry the audience along on a tide of passion. As well as teenage angst, Footloose, is all about fun and the carefree nature of being a teen, which of course is never fully appreciated at the time. As the comedy lead Willard, Gareth Gates gives a good performance, he has great comic timing and charm.

In the pivotal role of Rev. Moore, David J Higgins showed his acting range and sang so well on his solo “Heaven Help Me.” As his wife Vi, the wonderful Maureen Nolan worked her stage magic. Other cast members included Nicky Swift as Ren’s mum, Ethel McCormack; Alex Marshall as Ren’s Uncle, Wes Warnicker; Ariel’s friends Miracle Chance as Urleen, Natasha Brown as Wendy-Jo and Willard’s love interest the amazing Joanna Sawyer as Rusty.

Music is fundamental to Footloose, so restructuring the story into a musical should be a sure-fire win. The music in the show is loud, for sure, with a beat designed to set toes tapping and fingers snapping. The score is peppered with flashy dance tunes from the movie that have boomed over disco floors for years. And there’s a young, eager, hard-working cast of dancers, somersaulting, back-flipping, wriggling to the beat of the band. Certainly, director Racky Plews’ production cleverly uses its ‘80s soundtrack: every actor is also a skilled musician and the core band remain on-stage at all time.

I have seen Footloose in other venues on this tour and whilst before there was an element of something missing, this show in Sunderland had everything I wanted to see. Technically excellent, vocally brilliant and full of energy and fun. So kick off your Sunday shoes and just cut loose for Footloose.

Reviewed by Lindsay Sykes
Photo: Matt Martin