May 16, 2017
One thing you can pretty much guarantee with Matthew Bourne is that you’ll get a story well told. He certainly does so with The Red Shoes, although somewhat unusually for him, it’s told largely straight, following closely the famous 1948 Powell and Pressburger film, set in the same period and with only a few of his trademark idiosyncratic touches.
It is very busy, though, especially Act I. Until the arrival of The Red Shoes ‘ballet within a ballet’, it doesn’t so much feel like one is on that express train that that heroine Victoria Page falls under at the end, but on a runaway version of it. The stage always seems filled, scene changes happen quickly and, while the ensemble dances are very good, they do come thick and fast. Important moments in the story fly past and most characters don’t get to develop much. Despite the breakneck pace, though, and this says much for Bourne, the narrative is easy to follow, although a little familiarity with the film does help.
Act II is better in that we get to sense a lot more of the relationship between Victoria and Julian Craster, who she falls in love with, and impresario Boris Lermontov’s frustration at his inability to control them and events. Here too, though, Bourne tends to do too much. A scene in Monte Carlo provides the perfect opportunity for them to express their love for each other, and we do see them walking lovingly arm in arm, but do we really also need the other couples there, doing little it seems but fill the space?
Led by the wonderful flame-haired Ashley Shaw as Victoria, Dominic North as Julian and Sam Archer as Lermontov, the dancing was terrific. I wished for a little more in the way a feeling between Victoria and Julian, although we do finally see that in bedsit pas de deux of the second half, a time when for once, Bourne lets us draw breath. Throughout, Shaw’s facial expressions as much as her dance say so much.
Archer is a cool and authoritative Lermontov, a firm, rather unfeeling character, who cannot see beyond his art and his company. He plays Victoria as if she was a marionette, the only problem being this puppet happens to have a mind of her own. Mind you, Victoria is not above steely ambition too. When the company ballerina is injured, one senses it’s just the moment she’s been waiting for as she snatches her chance for the spotlight.
As the story unfolds, Bourne makes reference to a number of well-known ballets. There’s a splash of Les Sylphides, a nod to Ashton’s Dante Sonata, and to MacMillan’s Fin du Jour, the latter in a bright beach scene set in Monte Carlo.
The Red Shoes ballet is marvellous, all expressionist and monochrome. It could easily stand alone; and I suspect at some point may well.
The Bourne humour naturally puts in an appearance, most notably in the music hall East End London scene in Act II, which seems to be there to provide an opportunity for a couple of ‘divertissements’ more than anything else, although the Wilson and Keppel sand dance in particular is done brilliantly.
In the end, of course, Victoria is caught between her love for her art and her love for Julian (although the two are inextricably linked), with the heartbreaking result that we all know. The train is brilliantly done (resonant of Scottish Ballet’s Anna Karenina of many years ago), but unfortunately any sense of sadness or loss we might feel is diluted by Bourne, again, filling the stage with bodies..
Lez Brotherston’s sets are a delight. He effortlessly switches from backstage to front of house, from London to Monte Carlo and back again. The music, largely a collage of early Bernard Herrmann compositions arranged by Terry Davies is equally an absolute pleasure.
Recreating anything iconic is fraught with danger. The Red Shoes could so easily have been an absolute disaster. That it’s anything but, and pretty much guaranteed to send you home having had an enjoyable evening speaks volumes for Bourne’s storytelling skills. It just would have been nice to slow down occasionally.
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including an interval.
The Red Shoes continues on tour. Visit http://new-adventures.net/the-red-shoes for details.