REVIEW: Will Footloose at Sunderland Empire get your feet itching?

Gareth Gates as Willard in Footloose.
Gareth Gates as Willard in Footloose.

A lack of pace, a microphone gaff and some iffy American accents may have got Footloose off to a slow start - but it didn’t take long for this dance classic to find its feet.

Stepping into the dancing shoes of Kevin Bacon, whose iconic performance helped the 1984 film became a blockbuster hit, is no mean feat but Luke Baker as main man Ren brings great emotional intensity and energy to the role.

Luke Baker as Ren

Luke Baker as Ren

He’s the boy from the big city who can’t stand still in a backwater town where dancing’s been banned. He back flips and leaps his way around Bomont in athletically-impressive fashion as a rebellion against the law which forbids cutting loose after four teens were killed in a car crash on their way home from a dance.

It’s a great story - one loosely based on a real life incident in fact - and it lends itself perfectly to the musical stage.

While Luke sums up the frustration of the town’s teens with his feet, his main squeeze Ariel (Hannah Price) does it through her voice. She wears those red cowboy boots well and shines in the big hitting numbers, Holding Out for A Hero and Let’s Hear it For The Boy, which help to give this musical one of the most memorable scores on the circuit.

Like the bulk of this cast, she’s a triple threat who sings, dances and acts in the piece. Instead of having musicians in the pit, the actors play the instruments as they go, which adds an extra dimension to the show - it can’t be easy to keep flipping between disciplines.

Joanna Sawyer as Rusty and Gareth Gates as Willard in Footloose.

Joanna Sawyer as Rusty and Gareth Gates as Willard in Footloose.

Despite the cast’s obvious talents, it was Gareth Gates as bumbling cowboy Willard who stole the crowds’ heart.

It must be difficult for someone so intrinsically linked with their own pop career to slough off that tag, but his performance was so well-crafted Pop Idol became a distant memory.

Despite being a heartthrob to many, his physical comedy and awkward shuffles made him embody the goofy redneck persona this role requires. He displayed a real knack for comic timing too and had the audience breaking out in peals of laughter. Sometimes big names are booked to get bums on seats and though Gareth may help the tour get press, he also has the acting chops to back up his billing.

It’s just a shame this role doesn’t require more singing. Willard only has the lead in Mama Says, but Gareth’s vocals were pitch-perfect, even in a song that’s more about the comedy. I wanted to hear more.

Matthew Tomlinson as Chuck and the cast of Footloose.

Matthew Tomlinson as Chuck and the cast of Footloose.

Maureen Nolan also commanded the stage in the role of Vi Moore. It’s a downtrodden character that could easily fade into the background, but in the hands of seasoned stage pro Maureen it was one who demanded your attention, especially in tracks such as Can You Find It In Your Heart and Learning To Be Silent.

Much as she was in Blood Brothers, she’s a perfect fit in the matriarchal role.

As the bible belt hold over the town loosens its grip, the infectious dancing takes over, leaps off the stage and lifts you off your seat.

And when the cast broke into Footloose, the crowd started itching to join in and broke into a Mexican wave of moving feet. Prepare to put your two left feet to the test: I defy anyone not to dance.

Maureen Nolan as Vi Moore in Footloose.

Maureen Nolan as Vi Moore in Footloose.

•Footloose is at Sunderland Empire until Saturday, October 15

Gareth Gates as Willard in Footloose.

Gareth Gates as Willard in Footloose.