This past weekend, I headed to London. Originally it was to go to Thorpe Park yesterday, as I managed to snag myself some free tickets from The Sun newspaper. Lucky for me, my brother lives there so I had somewhere to stay. And, as he was busy on the Saturday, I ended up going to see my first show in London (his girlfriend was part of the cast), an amateur dramatic production of the musical Footloose in the Putney Arts Theatre.
I haven’t seen much AmDram in the past, mainly just a play or two put on by the local group here. To be honest, they were dry and badly acted, and I suspect most towns across the UK may have the same level of productions put on by similar groups. AmDram tends to have a bad name, which is a shame, because given the right cast and the right show they can be done brilliantly. As you can suspect, I was pleasantly surprised by the production. One of the main things to judge any musical by is how it leaves you feeling. You can go back and watch a film, but with live theatre you only have the one experience, so the after effect is important. I personally left Putney with an urge to dance, and have had some of the songs from the show stuck in my head for two days. It did its job, basically.
The dancing itself was done, I thought, really well, though it would have been nice to see a little more from Ren himself. I kind of missed the whole ‘angry dance scene’ that really made the movie for me. As well as that, the love triangle between Ren, Ariel and her ex was left in the air; in the 80s film, it comes to a head when the ex and Ren fight, in a brilliant scene where he uses his nimble dancing skills to outmatch the big, beefy guy. Considering it is a story about dancing and the need to dance, there just wasn’t enough of it. Still, what little there was, like I said, was done well, especially in the bigger numbers like Holding Out For A Hero.
One thing I really enjoy about watching musicals live is the extended cast; in a film, usually the dancers and/or extras will drift in and out. On stage, you can really pick out certain people and see how they change for every scene. The main cast play the same characters throughout, and it’s interesting to see if the ensemble do the same. Of course, in some musicals they go from school-kids to dancers in a club etc. but in something set in a small town, with the exception of maybe one or two scenes, it’s good for the ensemble cast to maybe create their own characters, give them personalities so the audience will recognise them throughout. And for the most part, the ensemble in Footloose did a pretty good job. And, again, the dancing! God knows how they must have been feeling after, but most of the time people ignore how much the extended cast would put into a show like this, where they’re needed in almost every scene and even have to do push-ups to please the coach.
As for the show as a whole…there seemed to have been an attempt to modernise it. The problem with that is that there was really no need; Footloose has iconic 80s music, and although I’m all up for modernising settings and characters, it only works if it adds something. Watching the production, the only modern aspect I spotted was one of the ensemble using a mobile phone to film Ren dancing around. It kind of distracted from the musical itself; they would have been better off getting the cast to wear 80s style clothing and keep it set in that decade. For me, it would have hugely added to the production itself.
So now for the main cast. Ren’s dancing (what little there was, at times) was done really well, especially when taking a small group to a bar to allow them to dance outside the town. Considering it was the last performance, the energy levels were high, always important in musicals like this. His occasional quips had the whole audience laughing. But there wasn’t enough of the angry kid dragged into the town for me. Ren is supposed to be angry and bitter at the way the town is treating him, and the fact that his favourite pastime has been banned by the council. Instead, he just seems slightly bothered by it. There’s no feeling here of what he’s really fighting for, no feeling of the bigger picture and the fact that his father has just walked out on him and his mother. It’s conveyed in the film (yeah, I’m mentioning it again) brilliantly by Kevin Bacon’s angry dance. A little more anger from Ren in this one would have gone a long way.
Willard, on the other hand, was played brilliantly. Dumb and loveable, he was the source of some of the best comedic moments. The relationship between him and Rusty had me rooting for them more than Ren and Ariel, and he had some of the best moments. Let’s Hear It For The Boy showed him trying to dance, and it worked so well. Mama Says was, perhaps, one of my favourite songs in the show, as Willard tries to impart some of his mother’s wisdom on Ren. It was played with a fitting innocence to the character, and the accent was pulled off perfectly.
As for the girls, in the film I found Ariel just a bit too obnoxious and annoying, but she was stripped of that in the production. Her motives were clear, and she became a much better character. Her teenage anger was exactly what I would have liked to see more of in Ren, but there was still that ‘daddy’s girl’ feel to her that makes you realise how far her father has pushed her away. Rusty, as well, did an excellent job at all her parts, and with the other two girls, the four of them created some brilliant, witty scenes, with the kind of voices and, again, accents, perfect for their songs.
The girls – not just the main four – outshone the guys. Maybe, partly, because they had more chance to do so, but they just seemed to jump into the whole thing with a bit more than the guys.
For me, it was a great way to spend the evening, and like I said, I came out with my feet tapping and the songs stuck in my head. The whole cast pulled together well, especially for the last performance of the run and the second of the day. A great musical, well cast and done very well.