It is not only the planes that are Airbourne this week. At the Devonshire Park Theatre, Gareth Gates and the touriing Footloose production bring enough uplift to take the roof off.
From the much-loved 1984 movie, memorable songs like Hear it for the Boy and Holding Out for a Hero still resonate like new, and the whole production has an 80s authenticity.
There are reservations. The extensive UK Footloose tour must have played many large, expansive venues but possibly none as cosy as the Devonshire Park. The theatre’s smaller playing area works beautifully for the more intimate scenes – enhanced by an effective revolve, switching seamlessly from high school to domestic parlour to town chapel. But these hugely talented dancers have to work miracles to squeeze in some of their big, exhilarating numbers. Credit to resourceful choreographer Matt Cole.
The score is quite strongly percussive, and the music is sometimes wall-of-sound rather than crystal clear. The show’s nearest number to a torch song, Holding Out for a Hero, is superbly, thrillingly staged – as long as you don’t expect Bonnie Tyler clarity.
With the reservations out of the way, you can sit back and enjoy the show.
A young company teems with multi-skilling talent: terrific energy, irresistible good humour and fabulous singing voices. A whole clutch of the actors come from Guildford School of Acting, that inspired drama school which never seems to produce a dud. Instruments, as is the modern way, are played live on stage, with MD David Keech and his drum kit perched precariously above the action.
The big names in the cast set a gold standard. Gareth Gates seems to have been around for years, but he was just seventeen when that 2002 Pop Idol face-off with Will Young launched them both to stardom, and Gareth retains his winning, engaging personality and is convincingly down with the kids. He sings gloriously, brings heaps of comedy to the character of Willard and adds in some great dance moves. In a show that’s low on gravitas, Maureen Nolan brings touching sincerity to the role of Vi. Her Learning to be Silent number with Lindsay Goodhand and Hannah Price is possibly the show’s highlight, a still point of thoughtfulness at the centre of a noisy, high-paced show.
But it is the kids who drive this production. In best Grease-Dirty Dancing fashion, there a love element, a generational clash, and an ultimate triumph of exuberant youth over stuffiness. In fact a true story underlies the plot. In deepest Backwoodsville, the little town of Bowood has banned dancing. Yes, it really happened, in Elmore City, Oklahoma, for several decades up to 1979. Dancing, quite simply, was of the Devil. The town’s elders and the local preacher feared an implosion of all things moral, not to mention a rise in pregnancies, if rock ‘n roll ever took hold.
So when a band from Chicago arrives in town, something has to give. Pastor’s daughter Ariel – a sensational Hannah Price – falls for Joshua Dowen’s dashing incomer Ren. A whole troupe of youngsters sing their hearts out and dance their sneakers off in the cause, and parental hearts soften as love finally conquers all. Too many to mention, but Laura Sillett’s Rusty is a brilliant portrayal. Remember these young names: they have great futures.
There are no huge moral statements, just high-energy, feel-good fun – delivered with panache and professionalism. The theatre is not far from sold out, but haggle for a ticket and you’ll be glad you did. By Kevin Anderson.