Sunderland Empire – until 16 September. Reviewed by Andrew Bramfitt
The 3rd biggest movie of 1983 (behind Return of the Jedi and Terms of Endearment) gets its leg warmers back on for a high octane dance fest filling theatres and delighting dance fans of all ages.
Since Tom Hedley penned the story of a dancing welder in Pittsburgh way back in the early 80’s the world has changed but one thing that has remained constant is the public love for a great story, brilliant dancing and of course, iconic songs. This current incarnation, directed by Hannah Chissick and with world famous Joanne Clifton as the lead Alex Owens, has been brought right up to date with stunning use of digital screens, hi-tech lighting and some very recognisable choreography.
The story, for anyone who has lived in a cave for the past 30+ years is split across 3 arcs with Alex the thread between all 3. She is an apprentice welder by day and wannabe dancer by night who befriends the steel mill owner whilst trying to save her best friend, Gloria (Hollie-Ann Lowe and a definite rival for star of the show) from ending up at the local sleaze bar & strip club. Along the way Alex has to decide between trying to conform to the expectations of society and remaining true to her own passions and does so through such eternal favourites as Gloria, Maniac, and What a Feeling.
The original movie was noticeably lauded for its approach being somewhat akin to the infant MTV – it was purposefully shot like a series of individual music videos stitched together by the story and this stage show retains that feel. Sadly though, this doesn’t always make for coherence when being viewed on a live stage. For all that the stories interweave, there were times where they felt they had been written by 3 different people, in separate rooms and then pushed together to form the whole; the pacing was a little inconsistent and some of the numbers felt like fillers before the next well known song. This in no way detracted from the cast’s delivery but just meant it felt a little stilted. That said, the dance numbers, compiled by Matt Cole, were like a who’s who of 80’s dance icons – Madonna, Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson and of course the original Jennifer Beals’ moves all play heavily into each routine.
The set design by Takis was ingenuity at its best; the use of LED display screens to seamlessly move the action from steel mill to dance studio to bar to apartment meant there was very little down time at all and by using the cast to move the 2 screens and stair cases kept the flow of the show without dropping a beat.
It was very clear from the sell out audience that this show, its parent movie and the soundtrack remain ever popular. The iconic songs have become woven into the 80’s consciousness (though I don’t recall the Joan Jett standard “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” featuring in the movie) and coupled with the dancing are sure to delight any dancers or dance students – even to my untrained eye it was an impressive display and one which will undoubtedly continue to delight.