Review by Al Phelan.
Dean Pitchford’s classic 1980s musical was brought to the Riley Smith Theatre on a surging wave of nostalgia and enthusiasm, as the cast of LUU SMS congregated for their opening night.
Perhaps, the ultimate goal that is seldom achieved with musical theatre, is to strike a balance between moments of cliché with those of poignancy and vulnerability conveyed by skilled actors. As I arrived at the Riley Smith Theatre for the opening of the musical, the air was permeated by the stab of 1980s guitar riffs and the clamor of an audience excited by the prospect of seeing their friends perform after months of apprehension and practice. Cue the swooping open of the curtains and the gliding of multi-coloured stage lights as the cast assembled for the opening score and title track of the musical. There was a flurry of high kicks and wide smiles, as dancers and actors alike cruised through the first number with both a crackle of tenacity and, unfortunately, overpowering microphone feedback. This was to be a common theme throughout the performance, as poignant scenes and well-executed vocal showcases would be blotted by the pitfalls of the University union’s sound engineers. Although not the first time that I’ve seen a performance at the Riley Smith theatre slightly sabotaged by low sound quality, it did little to derail the enthusiasm and professionalism of this brilliant cast.
All photos by Abby Swain
David Bygraves, aptly cast for the role of a 1980s teen thanks to his mullet and shock of curls, brought an understated charm to Ren McCormack: the Chicago native originally played by Hollywood icon Kevin Bacon. He proved himself as an emerging triple threat, undertaking ambitious, sweeping vocals whilst simultaneously perfecting the moon walk. Meanwhile, Cass Palmer- Stirling, effortless teetered across the stage in ruby-red cowboy boots, bringing the rebellious Ariel to life by adopting a sultry Southern accent and encapsulating moments of vulnerability to animate and add layers to her character. Palmer-Stirling was able to transcend the usual one-dimensional characters that are often written into musicals, by exhibiting flawless vocals on stage as well as an undeniable presence.
The charm of this university performance went beyond that of the competent cast. A raffle announced over a crackling microphone during the interval, with the promise of two Crème Eggs and a bottle of Rose creating some pretty high stakes, brought the audience from small-town, country Hick Beaumont back to England. More specifically, a niche strand of England that you might expect to find at a village fete or school fair. Alas, I walked from the theatre empty handed. The set design, although simple, was well thought-out and followed the cast as they moved through various small-town scenes. Different settings were introduced by hand-painted card board signs, creating a sweet vignette effect between scenes. A foreboding railway bridge hung over the set; a subtle sign of the plot twist that would come as the musical reached its crescendo.
At times, the plot was over-zealous in spoon feeding the audience with the overall message and storyline, but there were also heartfelt moments where more serious topics of the 1980s context were explored. One such moment occurred when actors Cass Palmer-Stirling, Savannah Perry and Milly Fern Parker joined together on stage for the song ‘Learning to Be Silent’ which details the mundane plight of three different yet equally down-trodden women living in the same small town.
Overall, the ensemble is thoroughly entertaining, having perfected their comic timing over months of rehearsals. In their execution of Dean Pitchford’s Footloose, they are utterly joyous.