Review – Matthew Bourne’s ‘The Red Shoes’

This review appeared on the Essential Surrey website in February 2020.

I’m in serious danger of becoming a fanboy for Matthew Bourne’s ‘New Adventures’ company. Their ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was a beautifully realised, beautifully danced reimagining of the classic ballet, and their ‘Swan Lake’, with its all-male ensemble of swans, is rightly famous. The company now gives us their take on Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 film ‘The Red Shoes’, which is considered one of the greatest-ever British movies.

Young ballerina Victoria Page joins Boris Lermontov’s company at the same time as aspiring composer Julian Craster. They both succeed and she becomes principal ballerina in Craster’s ballet ‘The Red Shoes’, their artistic triumph mirrored by their falling in love.

Jealous of their relationship, Lermontov fires Julian, with Victoria choosing love over her career and leaving the company with him. But six months later, the two of them now living in cheap digs and performing in a run down variety theatre, Victoria is tempted back to star in ‘The Red Shoes’ again. Realising that he has lost her, Julian goes to the railway station to leave town. Victoria, conflicted, rushes from the theatre to the station and falls in front of a train, dying in Julian’s arms.

Central to this production (as it was in the film) is the ‘ballet within a ballet’ of ‘The Red Shoes’ – Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of a young woman tempted by a demonic stranger to wear the red shoes that give her the power to dance divinely, but which she finds impossible to remove. On and on she dances, giving up the boy who loves her and literally dancing herself to death. Life imitates art, as Victoria is torn between Julian and her wish, or need, to dance.

The production looks stunning, designer Lez Brotherston perfectly executing the style of the 1940s and the colours and the tropes of 1940s movies – the passage of time shown by a back projection of calendar pages falling, for example, or the fact that the cast appear to be constantly smoking. In the ballet within a ballet, we see a modernist set, the red shoes and costume of Victoria contrasting with the monochrome dress of the rest of the cast, another striking visual that emphasises Victoria’s unique talent. The music adds yet another layer of movie allusions to the mix, as it comprises pieces from various film scores by Bernard Herrmann, including The Ghost and Mrs Muir and Citizen Kane.

Bourne has taken a dialogue-heavy film and transformed it into a wordless ballet, the characters, story, relationships and emotions all having to be conveyed through dance. It is a stunning success, the excellence of the choreography highlighted by the uniform brilliance of the cast. The ensemble pieces – whether the dancers are ‘performing’ in the on-stage productions, or when they are ‘off stage’ at leisure – are complex but flowing, the 17 dancers taking different roles and characters at various times to give the illusion of a much bigger company, the stage always full of movement and drama.

With such a depth of talent, it should be difficult for the principals to stand out, but they quite assuredly do, not just as dancers, but also for their acting. Glenn Graham as Lermontov’s principal dancer Grischa Ljubov, is sinuous, athletic and seductive as the demonic shoe-seller in The Red Shoes ballet. Harrison Dowzell as Julian Craster has a compelling solo as he dreams of conducting an orchestra, and his pas-de-deux with Ashley Shaw as Victoria, as they fight, make up and fight again in their cheap lodging house, brought at least one member of the audience to tears (me). And Shaw, as she did in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ always holds the attention when on stage – hypnotic when dancing in character in the ballets, captivating and moving when being the off-stage Victoria.

The whole production is a wonderful evening, not just for fans of dance, but for anyone who loves theatre (or, indeed, the movies of the 1940s).

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