Theatre Review: Footloose at the Orchard Theatre, by Jaye Nolan

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I have a confession: I have never seen the film. Released in 1984, at the pinnacle of my own dancing career (in jazz clubs!) I rarely went to the pictures. Live music yes – name a soul or New Romantic band from that era and I’ve probably seen them live. But cinema, no.

Which means of course, that I came to ‘Footloose’ completely fresh – albeit familiar with the chart songs – having absolutely no idea that this story was based on truth.

I mean, how on earth could dancing be banned? In the 80s? THE EIGHTIES?! I couldn’t imagine, so I was initially a little incredulous about the whole concept (which may be why I didn’t see the film). 

Matthew Tomlinson as Chuck and the cast of Footloose. Photo Credit Matt Martin

The research of scriptwriter Dean Pitchford led him to the town of Elmore City, Oklahoma, where up until 1979, dancing had been banned for 88 years. And there was no-one left alive who could actually remember why! A high school president asked the school board to bend the rules so they could have a prom but met resistance from the local minister, until parents decided it was better to have their children dance under supervision than dance in secret.

Hannah Price as Ariel Moore and Luke Baker as Ren in Footloose. Photo Credit Matt Martin

And there was Dean’s inspiration for a film that is still referenced now, over 30 years after its release, which debuted on Broadway in 1998 and has been touring the world since, whether as a major production or as a favourite for schools.

With huge themes at the heart of the story (loss, loneliness, isolation) this brash and colourful production, directed by Racky Plews, is tempered by tender moments – particularly, the beautifully sung Learning To be Silent, by the trio of Vi (Maureen Nolan), Ethel (Nicky Swift) and Ariel (Hannah Price). Tears prickled my eyes but luckily no-one was watching me.

Maureen Nolan as Vi Moore in Footloose. Photo Credit Matt Martin

Gareth Gates has come a long way since he stammered his way through Pop Idol. As the shy, awkward Willard, gradually becoming bolder, he showed a natural comic lightness that stole the show every time he appeared. Also very impressive was Luke Baker as rebel Ren, who never flagged once and who nailed Kevin Bacon’s voice so eerily on occasion, I had to remind myself it wasn’t him.

Joanna Sawyer as Rusty and Gareth Gates as Willard in Footloose. Photo Credit Matt Martin

If the first half of the show was a raucously bubble-gum affair, the second half took you deeper into the motivations of the characters, leading to a touching resolution. A boy missing his dad; a man missing his son, both coming to terms with the past and able to move forward. 

Hannah Price as Ariel Moore in Footloose. Photo Credit Matt Martin

While some of the choreography might lead to a couple of awkward questions for parents of younger theatre-goers, this is splendid, entertaining family fun for all – even with Gareth Gates stripped down to sequin shorts – and could easily inspire the next generation of performers.

Footloose at The Orchard Theatre is an excellent addition to Dean’s legacy. The cast are clearly having a brilliant time, and the energy is electric. It’s a brave, inspired decision to have the acting, singing and dancing cast playing the music live on stage and one that is completely justified with such a cohesive team of players. And what’s not to love about a show that has the audience on its feet at the end, joining in the finale?

Scott Haining as Bickie and the cast of Footloose. Photo Credit Matt Martin

The show runs until Saturday, February 13 – tickets can be booked here.

Getting there: The Orchard Theatre is located right next door to Dartford Rail Station, a few minutes walk across the bridge. For drivers, parking at the station car park costs just £1.50 for the evening after 6pm.

Photo credit: Matt Martin