The 80s continue to be everywhere in pop culture, which is especially prescient to mention just after the release of Stranger Things 4 last weekend. This includes the world of musical theatre: at the end of last year, I saw Heathers at the WMC and only a couple of weeks ago, Rock of Ages at the New Theatre. Yesterday evening I found myself back at the Cardiff venue for Footloose, based on the Kevin Bacon-starring 1984 film which itself is based on a semi-true story about a group of high schoolers whose prom plans were ruined by an archaic ‘no dancing’ law passed in their town in the 1800s.
What this stage version – adapted by Dean Pritchard and Walter Robbie – lays bare is just how threadbare the plot of the film really is. That sentence I wrote above more or less summarises the entire story (albeit the legislation being more modern and tragic), minus a few angsty warehouse jives and tractor ‘chicken’. But what made Footloose a classic was its strong performances from Bacon and John Lithgow as the anti-fun Reverand and its banger-packed Kenny Loggins soundtrack. The same can pretty much be said of the musical, led in this production by pop star Jake Quickenden and West Ender Darren Day, and directed by Racky Plews. The problem is that stretching the runtime inevitably leaves parts of the show feeling especially thin and certain musical numbers too much like filler.
On the more positive side, what impressed me was the ambition of the staging and musicality of the cast. Not only do they sing and dance but they also play instruments live on stage throughout, making most of them pull double or even triple duty during some scenes. One sequence even has two guitarists playing jump rope alongside Joshua Hawkins’ Ren McCormack, whose breath control is equally applause-worthy during the piece. And though they don’t have to play instruments, another number calls for tyre choreography and a scene in the diner Ren works at has him in rollerskates on a gleaming floor almost designed for a nasty accident.
Musically, Somebody’s Eyes and Learning To Be Silent are the standouts, but the rest of the original songs didn’t really stick in my head after I’d heard them. Instead, much like other full-on jukebox musicals, Footloose relies on a healthy sprinkling of the film’s own soundtrack (Footloose, Holding Out For A Hero, Let’s Hear It For The Boy) to do the heavy lifting – including getting the audience on their feet for a mega encore mash-up at the end. Unfortunately, this only made the others feel all the weaker by comparison, and I wonder if the show should have gone one way or the other rather than meld the old and the new.
Quickenden and Day earn their headlining credits – the former with his fleetfooted dancing and comic timing and the latter with a convincing portrayal of an emotionally closed off fire and brimstone preacher. Oonagh Cox as Rusty is full of charm though her lines were sometimes lost in a slightly overcooked comedic performance. Like many of the characters, she’s also caricatured as more of a ‘dumb hick’ than a renegade bored teenager, which while not outright offensive skirted along the edge of unsympathetic.
Hawkins, meanwhile, puts in a solid attempt to fill Bacon’s vest and jeans, though I was a little disappointed at the staging of I’m Free/Heaven Help Me, the equivalent of the iconic warehouse dance scene. Rather than a solitary, joyful gasp for air in a suffocating town, the stage version comes off a bit gimmicky, confined and even clumsy at times. All that being said, it’s hard not to get swept up in some fist-pumping Loggins anthems. I’ll look forward to Top Gun: The Musical when someone decides to make it.
New Theatre, Cardiff, Mon 30 May.
Footloose runs until Sat 4 June at the New Theatre, Cardiff. Tickets: £18-£42. Info: here
words HANNAH COLLINS
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