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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Red Shoes
Battersea Arts Centre    Spring 2011

I must begin with the admission that I am an unabashed fan of Kneehigh Theatre, who do some of the most exciting and inventive theatre I have ever seen.

They take wildly dangerous artistic chances and occasionally stumble, but their stumbles are more interesting than many people's successes, and their successes are uniquely thrilling and memorable.

For The Red Shoes, first done a decade ago, director Emma Rice did not settle for a pretty ballet story or even the Hans Christian Andersen version.

She looked back to the tale's mythic roots to produce something simultaneously more macabre and more darkly comic, and then found a means of expression that makes the act of making theatre part of the story.

The cast of five (plus two musicians) appear with shaven heads and identical underwear, turning them into blank slates on which the tale will be told, on a bare set with minimal props.

As needed, simple costumes and the aid of a narrator will give them identities, and the narrator herself is a man in drag, taking the persona of a faded aristocrat who finds her cool and ironic distance harder to maintain as the emotional power of the story grows.

In this version a poor orphan girl is adopted by a rich blind woman, the child's one tiny act of rebellion being the selection of pretty red shoes rather than the sombre black her benefactress ordered.

Of course the shoes are cursed, forcing their wearer to dance, at first happily - there's a perky line dancing sequence - and then inappropriately - in church, at a funeral - and finally so compulsively that her soul and body are endangered.

There's a sequence of symbolic gore and one of symbolic metaphysics, both of them so inventively staged that they are more evocative than realism would have been.

It's been a long time since I've been as moved by any theatrical moment as much as the scene in which the girl rejects salvation while reaching desperately for the shoes, even though it is staged as a slapstick wrestling match with the angel come to save her.

And meanwhile, the metatheatrical element, the fact that we are always aware of the actors creating the illusion, does not distance us from the tale but reinforces its oral-tradition mythic nature.

As the girl, Patrycja Kujawska begins with an open guileless face that suggests a blend of Audrey Tautou and Buster Keaton, but draws us into the frighteningly complex emotions of compulsion and addiction.

Giles King as the narrator lets us know that he's a guy in drag and then makes us believe in his character anyway, and Dave Mynne, Robert Luckay and Mike Shepherd play Everyone Else with fluid ease.

(I want to make another point in passing. Out of a full audience I would guess that I could pick any two people at random and their combined ages would be less than mine. That can only be a good thing.)

There are isolated moments in The Red Shoes that don't work, as there are in every Kneehigh production, scattered drops in energy when an audacious image doesn't quite succeed or a sequence is held a bit too long.

But there is more invention, more imagination, more of the excitement that live theatre is (or should be) on these bare boards than in half the tourist trap musicals in the West End put together.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Red Shoes - Battersea Arts Centre 2011


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