Review: Footloose at the Orchard Theatre

Footloose, as most people above a certain age will know, was the 1984 movie starring a young Kevin Bacon as teenager Ren McCormack. Forced to leave Chicago and move to the small town of Bomont, Ren discovers that dancing’s been banned by the town council, and immediately sets about trying to change their minds. It’s based on a true story about Elmore City, Oklahoma, and touches on issues of religion, loss, prejudice and gender roles.

Now adapted for the stage by the movie’s original creator Dean Pitchford, and directed by Racky Plews, Footloose is a toe-tapping triumph of a show in which the multi-talented cast are also the band; they may not always be allowed to dance but they can still express themselves through music, playing everything from the electric guitar to the oboe. This gives the show a very collaborative feel, reminiscent of the brilliant Once (although in every other respect the two couldn’t be more different).

Luke Baker as Ren and the cast of Footloose. Photo Credit Matt Martin
Photo credit: Matt Martin

It might surprise some people to learn that the show’s big name star, Gareth Gates, doesn’t play the central role of Ren. That honour goes to Luke Baker, who gives an impressive, layered performance as the tortured teen. Gates, meanwhile, plays Ren’s friend Willard, in what turns out to be a perfect piece of casting. He’s a bit awkward, nervous around girls and far too attached to his mama, but with a twinkly charm and impeccable comic timing that’s guaranteed to win over anyone who still thinks of him as just that guy from Pop Idol. And his performance is memorable for another reason… but I won’t ruin the surprise.

Maureen Nolan – no stranger to emotional roles after recently reprising her role as Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers – plays Vi Moore, the preacher’s wife torn between loyalty to her husband (Nigel Lister) and concern about the rebellious behaviour of their daughter, Ariel (Hannah Price, who makes her professional debut in style). But it would be wrong to single out any one cast member; this is very much a team effort, and a fantastic one at that.

Photo credit: Matt Martin
Photo credit: Matt Martin

Choreographer Matthew Cole has captured the freedom of dance that’s so key to the story; though it may not all be particularly elegant, it’s full of energy and an irresistible joy to watch. The cast also make the line dancing routines look very easy, which I know from brutal experience they really aren’t. (I went to a line dancing class the other day. Let’s move on.)

And finally there’s the music, some of which was written specially for the musical by Tom Snow – but the tunes that really get the audience bopping in their seats are the classic hits from the movie, which include I Need A Hero, Let’s Hear It For The Boy and, of course, the title track. It’s a perfect piece of 80s nostalgia, for those of us old enough to remember that far back; for everyone else it’s just great fun.

Footloose is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until Saturday 13th February.

Review: Blood Brothers at the Marlowe Theatre

As musicals go, this one probably needs little introduction. Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers began life as a school play, and opened in the West End in 1983, before running for 24 years from 1988. I still remember it as the only show that’s ever caused me to openly sob throughout the curtain call, and I’m sad that I only got to see it once before it closed in 2012.

But hurrah! Blood Brothers is back, and embarking on a national tour, which kicked off at Wimbledon last week, before transferring to the Marlowe in Canterbury. Directed by Bob Tomson, it stars Marti Pellow (who old folk like me remember from his Wet Wet Wet days) as the narrator and Maureen Nolan as Mrs Johnstone, a struggling single mother who agrees to give one of her newborn twins away to her wealthy employer. The two boys grow up in very different surroundings, but somehow keep finding each other, with ultimately heartbreaking consequences.

Blood Brothers

But in case you think that all sounds a bit depressing, never fear, because Blood Brothers is also one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in ages. It’s set in Liverpool, with a cheeky Scouse personality, and doesn’t take itself too seriously – the script is happy to acknowledge the fact that the same actors are playing more than one part. But perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of Blood Brothers is the way it has adult actors playing the characters throughout their lives, beginning at age 7 (nearly 8). It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it totally does – the cast capture brilliantly all the mannerisms of children, and after a while you completely forget they’re grown ups in kids’ clothes. And then when they do grow up, and graduate from toy guns to real ones, you find you really care what happens to them.

Blood Brothers is an unusual musical, in that it only actually has a few songs, which are repeated throughout the show, with slight variations. Each character has one or two themes – Mrs Johnstone tells the story of her family through the recurring Marilyn Monroe, while the Narrator warns the characters of their impending doom with The Devil’s Got Your Number, and the twins, Mickey and Eddie, wish themselves into each other’s shoes with That Guy. However, that said, there are a few standalone numbers – Eddie’s wistful love song to Linda, I’m Not Saying a Word, is particularly poignant, especially given what happens next.

Blood Brothers

I was intrigued to see Marti Pellow on stage, having heard mixed reviews of his recent performance in Evita. His Narrator prowls the stage with intense eyes and moments of almost violent aggression as he reminds the two mothers of what they’ve done. Compared to some of the other characters, the Narrator doesn’t have a huge amount to do vocally, but this is a character who’s all about presence, and Pellow certainly delivers on that front. Meanwhile Maureen Nolan reprises her role as Mrs Johnstone, which I always think must be one of the most emotionally demanding parts to play, calling as it does for extremes of happiness and devastation. Like Niki Evans, who I saw in this role before, Nolan looks shattered at the curtain call, as well she might; her closing scene is one of the most powerful in musical theatre.

But while these may be the ‘headline’ members of the cast, there are plenty of other standout performances: Paula Tappenden is brilliant as the well to do Mrs Lyons, descending into madness as a result of her own made-up superstition. And I doubt there was anyone in the theatre who didn’t leave a little bit in love with Sean Jones, who plays Mickey, the ultimate cheeky chappy. Joel Benedict and Danielle Corlass complete the trio of inseparable friends who ultimately – and perhaps predictably – find themselves embroiled in a love triangle.

Blood Brothers
Picture: Lorne Campbell / Guzelian

If you’ve seen Blood Brothers before, you’ll know it’s brilliant. If you haven’t, I urge you to seize this second chance to catch it. It’s a story about family, and the enduring debate over nature versus nurture. And despite being written in the 1980s, it still feels very contemporary, with its questions about class and poverty. With great music and memorable characters, this is a show not to be missed.

Blood Brothers is at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury until 26th September.