The film ‘The Red Shoes’ terrified me as a child. One dull and wet Sunday, Powell and Pressburgers’s 1948 iconic, Oscar-winning, technicolour-drenched film where (spoiler – but you MUST have seen the film by now) a prima ballerina, caught in a triangle between and then rejected by the two most influential men in her life meets a tragic fate, is melodramatic, horrific and potentially traumatising – especially if you’re only ten years old.
Matthew Bourne’s revival of his 2016 production with New Adventures glistens and beguiles however, as if newly minted. Just as a flame haired Moira Shearer took the original film role, a flame-haired Ashley Shaw reprises the central role of Vicky Page, developing a layered performance as she moves from ingenue to leading lady - before slipping down a few rungs as a vaudeville performer and exuding quite desperation as a supportive but frustrated wife.
Dominic North’s Julian Craster, the composer Vicky falls for, with his passionate expansiveness, is the counterpoint to Reece Causton’s demanding & imperious impresario Lermontov, with his rigid ethos that that love distracts from great art: Causton stays ramrod straight for most of the production, unbending in posture as well as character.
Dominating the stage as the biggest and most impressive prop is the rotating proscenium arch at the heart of Lez Brotherston’s brilliant set, framing the performers, turning & swallowing them again, segueing the action backstage, in rehearsal and in performance: the arch practically devours the performers as art devours the characters.
There truly is no inch of the stage that is not used and at certain points there may be up to eight pieces of choreography all joyfully bustling for attention – particularly in the rehearsal scenes, and the ballet-within-a-ballet that closes the first act is a sharp counterpoint to the lush and sometimes playful style of what’s gone before; sharp, angular, expressionistic and in chiaroscuro, it doomily foreshadows Vicky’s own fate.
The vivid score, drawn from a range of early music by film composer Bernard Herrmann (including segments from Citizen Kane, The Ghost and Mrs Muir and Fahrenheit 451), under the deft arrangement of Terry Davies, skilfully knits together swelling and yearning segments that tear at the heartstrings and give the choreography a potent emotional undertow.
If you haven’t seen the film, the final scene may come as a bit of a sudden and slightly clumsy shock – particularly as there is no gradual build up to the denouement. However, this is a tiny cavil against this spectacular, inventive, passionate production, which could easily, like the titular shoes, keep dancing onstage for years to come.
This stunning version has finally displaced the horror of my childhood memories with a genuinely tragic fable, raising deeper questions about how far you would go for your art, where the dividing line is between the personal and the creative, the sin of vanity and possible redemption and about the role of woman as muse & tragic victim. The originally simple but gruesome Hans Anderson fairy tale of shoes that will not allow the dancer to stop dancing also posits one big final question: is art actually worth dying for?
Reviewer: Tracy Ryan
Reviewed: 25th February 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★