Edinburgh Playhouse – until 23rd July 2022
Reviewed by Rachel Farrier
As with a lot of cult 1980s pop culture, I somehow managed to miss out on the phenomenon of ‘Footloose‘ in my very rural 80s childhood, but the audience for the stage version last night were, I would guess, mostly ardent fans of the film and accompanying soundtrack – the excitement in the packed crowd was palpable before the show had even started. And they were right be excited: this show is high energy FUN from the get-go. Joshua Hawkins as Ren does a fantastic job of bringing his energetic, fun loving but thoughtful character to life and he effortlessly bounced between songs, acrobatic dance routines and moments of poignant dialogue. Lucy Munden as his eventual love interest Ariel is the perfect match – she likewise had the audience in the palm of her hand as she sashayed with huge confidence between classics such as ‘I Need a Hero‘, whilst also managing to convey the complexities of a teenager trying to find her own voice and place in the world in other scenes.
The context of the small American town of Bomont where dancing has been banned by the church Minister provides the backdrop to a group of teenagers who find their peer Ren – freshly and unwillingly moved from Chicago – the rebel leader that they didn’t know they had been looking for. Brilliant ensemble performances from the gang of high school seniors – in particular Oonagh Cox as Rusty – really make this show. On the warmest night of the year outside, their energy, exuberance and pitch perfect performances were outstanding. Especially impressive is the fact that the orchestra/band for the show are the on-stage performers themselves, and they swap in and out of providing musical accompaniment and backing vocals, to acting and dancing stunning routines with apparently effortless ease. One stand out moment came when two of the high school seniors were playing guitar, singing and jumping rope simultaneously – all with huge grins.
Darren Day plays Rev Shaw Moore, the joy-crushing church Minister whose heart and mind are changed by Ren and his antics, and while this role could feel somewhat cliched, Darren Day manages to bring a depth and warmth to the character that I actually found moving. And he still has an outstanding voice!
The set design is cleverly conceived, and manages to convincingly evoke a variety of settings that typify small-town America in movies – from the burger joint, to the school locker room, to the cosy home of the Minster and his family.
Whilst this is a high energy musical which exudes fun and entertainment, there are moments of serious dialogue and reflection in song which deal with some hefty issues, and these are handled brilliantly by the cast. Toxic masculinity and abusive power dynamics are broached when Rev Moore’s wife Vi (Holly Ashton) sings ‘Learning to be Silent‘ with Ren’s mum Ethel (Wendy Paver) and Ariel about having to maintain silence and ‘behave’ for the domineering men in their lives in order to keep the peace and a roof over their heads, and this certainly seemed to speak to the predominantly female audience. The duet ‘Almost Paradise‘ between Ren and Ariel towards the end of the show is a beautifully conveyed expression of their sweet and respectful burgeoning romance, after they have both acknowledged the pain of loss in their lives.
The only slightly jarring element of the show was the eighties-tastic humour which felt out of place in the 21st century (the ‘accidental’ grabbing of breasts, slightly mysoginistic jokes) but I guess Footloose is, to some extent, is now a historical depiction of another time and place. There were also perhaps some issues between the audio balance of singers and instruments, but this was the opening night and will no doubt be remedied.
Overall, it is an exhilarating and hugely fun night out and the cast’s enthusiasm and talent richly deserved the standing ovation they received at the end of the night last night..