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Footloose

by on 11 April 2019

Let All The Children Boogie!

Footloose

by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie

HEOS Musical Theatre at The Judi Dench Playhouse, Questors, Ealing until 13th April

Review by Andrew Lawston

The stage of the Judi Dench Playhouse at Questors is largely bare, with some scaffolding at the back, with a burger bar and a petrol pump (or should that be gasoline pump?) decorating the wings. The playing area is clear for a lot of dancing.

This might seem odd on the face of it, given that we’re here for a musical based on the 1984 film Footloose which, famously, is about a town where dancing is banned.

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But as the band strikes up, and the scaffolding poles reveal themselves to be suitably festooned with strings of LEDs, it’s clear that we’re in for a night of rock and roll excess, 80s style. HEOS Musical Theatre gamely adopt American accents and cowboy hats for Laurie Asher’s new production of Footloose, with just a few opening night technical jitters from the sound system.

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Bacon is off the menu, but Chris Yoxall leads the cast with a strong and likeable performance as Ren McCormack, the Chicago kid dropped into the backwater of Bomont. Coupled with Gina Ackroyd as Ariel Moore, the minister’s daughter, who brings the house down halfway through the first act with a belting rendition of Holding Out For A Hero, the two of them scream at trains and belt out numbers with great gusto throughout, holding the show together.

Reverend Shaw Moore, the grief-stricken minister responsible for coming up with the law prohibiting public dancing within Bomont’s town limits butts heads with most of the young cast and quite a few of the older characters as he defends his stance. Chris Gibson is called on to play a challenging role, as the actor has to find new ways of delivering ideas that the character essentially repeats endlessly throughout the show. His wife, Vi, played with energy by Sue Yoxall, gradually takes on greater authority as Shaw’s moral stance rings ever more hollow. I felt this couple were the most interesting characters within the play, in terms of the journey they went on throughout the show. They also provided an effective contrast with Sarah La-Plain’s down-but-not-out Ethel McCormack, Ren’s mother, who seems to feel just as trapped as her son in Bomont’s oppressive and conformist atmosphere.

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While the musical numbers were always going to be the main attraction, Andrew Murphy stole much of the show with a perfectly-timed comic performance as Willard Hewitt, complete with cowboy hat and in dangerous need of dance lessons. His hesitant attempts to court Holly McIntosh’s vivacious and loquacious Rusty provided many of the production’s best laughs.

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Antonio Spano also shone as the belligerent Chuck Cranston – a truly despicable character, with not a great deal to do except to intimidate and manhandle people, Antonio managed to make the role believable, and oozed aggression and imminent violence whenever on stage.

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This production boasts an enormous cast, some of which get more to do than others. Gemma Hunt and Deborah Alawode add weight to the girls’ songs as Ariel and Rusty’s friends Urleen and Wendy Jo, most notably for Holding Out for a Hero and Somebody’s Eyes. Tyrone Haywood, David Claffey, Melissa Chitura-Bidwell, Vanessa Plessas, Richard Abel, David Nolder, Anne Murphy, Alex Turner and Richard Nolder round out the teenage and adults casts respectively, with Pam Armstrong appearing on roller skate for the first time, according to the programme notes! With a host of additional dancers swelling the ranks for big numbers such as I’m Free/Heaven Help Me, Still Rockin’, and of course the various iterations of the eponymous hit Footloose, Michelle Spencer’s choreography makes full use of the theatre’s wide playing area and the multi-level opportunities provided by the scaffolding set. By the end of the show there are dancers in the aisles, and all over the stage, a real spectacle that must have required a huge amount of coordination in rehearsal.

Two musical directors, Richard Fairhead and Terry Gardner, do justice to the music in Footloose, with a band of seven musicians (including Fairhead on keyboards) supplying the evening’s soundtrack. There seemed to be occasional glitches with the sound system and levels that I was sure would be ironed out throughout the run, but the band played a blinding variety of tunes, with heavy emphasis on 80s synths and big guitars.

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Laurie Asher and Stuart La-Plain’s empty set is dressed with swift efficiency and spartan scenery elements for each new scene, with benches being dragged in for the church, or a basketball hoop being fixed to the scaffolding for a school gym. With Rob Luggar’s crisp lighting defining rooms and locations, and varying the feel of the stage enormously, the effect is of a much more varied and lavish set. And Fiona MacKay’s costumes add to the visual spectacle, a riot of colours and glitter for the teens, and frumpy muted colours for the repressed adults.

Footloose is presented here very much as a boy meets girl musical, and HEOS have pulled it off in spectacular fashion.  All in all it’s a great night of fun at Questors.

Andrew Lawston
April 2019

Photography by Margaret Partridge

From → Musicals, Reviews

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