Reviews of teenage productions often go on about the energy on stage, which sells them short – if you don’t have energy when you are a teenager, when do you? – because it rather implies that other aspects of the show are lacking. So I will not be referring to the energy shown by the cast of Footloose, which you can take as read: a review of a production as good as this should be concentrating on the excellent dancing, singing and acting on show.
The story is of Ren and his mother moving to a small town after Ren’s father has deserted them. The parson’s influence in the town has banned dancing because his son was one of four people killed in a road accident coming home from a dance. Ren tries to change this, at first by open rebellion and then by growing up enough to realise that empathy and persuasion are more likely to be successful.
It is the dancing that probably makes the greatest impression. There is some powerful choreography by Caroline Barnes and all the leads are at least adequate dancers, while some are outstanding. The company numbers fill the Pavilion stage, which rather restricts the choreography; what is noticeable, though, is that whereas in most shows there are one or two dancers who are understandably hidden away at the back, in Footloose there are no passengers and everyone in the dance numbers has earned the right to be on that stage and to contribute to a terrific overall effect.
They dance with such enthusiasm and commitment that you wonder where they find the breath to sing, but sing they do, and extremely well. Musical director Karl Davies has brought out the best in both his chorus and his principals, who give us some pleasingly accurate harmonies.
There is imaginative staging by the director, Tina Witham, whose use of video is all the more effective for being restrained. The church scenes, where the congregation have their backs to us, work particularly well. She has sensibly told her actors to attempt only light American accents, which they sustain, and there are few moments of questionable diction. Only one beef, and I accept that it may be a generational thing: what is the virtue of the two occasions when the audience is blinded by spotlights directed straight at them?
There are two casts, so I can only comment on the one I saw, who will re-appear for the Friday afternoon and Saturday evening performances. Arthur Janes, playing Ren, is one of the outstanding dancers already referred to and he has a pleasant tenor voice, too. His depiction of a troubled teenager is entirely convincing. As his love interest, Ariel, Issy Flutter conveys the sometimes unsubtle seductiveness of a teenage girl when a hunk comes into sight, but when the part demands more depth than that, she is not found wanting.
As Willard, the first friend Ren makes in his new town, Harvey Walsh creates an offbeat but thoroughly likeable character and leads a men’s quintet to great effect in ‘Mama says’. Willard’s love interest is Rusty, played by Tempest Bailey with considerable comedic skill; take that with the way she belts out ‘Let’s hear it for the boy’ and it is like having a pocket Ethel Merman on stage. She and Ariel make up a gang with Wendy Jo and Urleen (think Pink Ladies in Grease), as whom Maya Wilton and Jasmine Rimell respectively offer strong support.
Matt Stockham was stage manager and is six or more years older than most of his fellow-actors, but was drafted in to play Parson Moore two weeks before opening night. He does an exceptionally good job, and his scenes with his wife, Vi, provide some of the strongest acting in the piece. But it takes two, and as Vi, Alice Ryan gives a remarkably sensitive performance for an eighteen-year-old; she sings ‘Can you find it in your heart’ beautifully, too.
Behind all the 120-decibel music, the spectacular lighting and the whole-hearted dancing, Footloose offers quite a moving story, with the generations finding some sort of common ground and understanding, and Ren and Ariel realising their growing love for each other. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the production is the maturity with which such comparatively young actors bring out these aspects of the piece
Future performances: 16-17 February, 2.00 and 7.30 each day.