The Red Shoes

Three men and one woman, each in their underwear and each sporting shaven heads, survey the audience with dark, sunken eyes from the front of the stage. Each wields an old-fashioned steel tub full of dirty water, and for a delicious moment their eyes dart to and from each other, silently communicating a devilish plan, their mouths flickering into wicked smiles before each pair of eyes settles back towards the audience decidedly, their grips on the steel tubs tightening. The audience laughs, but there is an almost tangible uneasiness behind the laughter, a nervousness that warns, “The programme didn’t say we’d get wet, I won’t be laughing if you throw water all over me and my Blackberry.”

The performers and the audience wait with baited breath, sizing each other up, the uncomfortable atmosphere thickening in the air, and then it is broken as suddenly as it arrived by the comical appearance of our narrator Lady Lydia, a strapping six foot man in a fur coat. This moment completely encapsulated the tone of Kneehigh’s production of the fantastically morbid Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Red Shoes for me. Despite being a story for children, The Red Shoes’ overriding themes of temptation and obsession make this a fable unsuited to the faint hearted and this sense of darkness lurks behind the air of mischief that the performers pervade, offering the audience tantalising glimpses into the macabre whilst simultaneously beguiling us with laughter and dance.

Mischief and fun are key concepts behind much of Kneehigh’s wildly inventive work and the sense of child-like play permeates the entire production. The minimalist set becomes a playground as the performers eat up the space, clambering upon and swinging from the metal frame that encases the action as if climbing out of a story book page. Watching the show felt as if one was being catapulted into the imagination of a child – a twisted, peculiar child, perhaps, but a child none the less. The four nameless performers contested over their roles just as children would do, and swelled with pride when they were handed their respective roles by Lady Lydia, elegantly draped across the top of the metal frame like a cat overseeing a circus of mice.

The crude simplistic way in which they were handed their roles, being given suitcases inscribed with titles such as, “Old Lady,” was not only comical but emphasised this enchanting sense of children playing pretend. One gained the sense that nothing was impossible as suitcases became grave stones and whole congregations were formed by one performer frantically changing a hat into different shapes and thus becoming a different character. The whole effect left me watching with an equally childish sense of awe and the haunting live accompaniment of the musicians either side of the stage only added to this feeling and lifted the energy greatly.

However, this sense of play also took on a darkness to it, and as the production crept towards its gruesome finale, one increasingly had the feeling that the performers were playing with the audience as well as each other for their own entertainment. At least twice, Lady Lydia demanded that they stop halt the performance in order for some “light relief,” performing comically terrible magic tricks almost more for their amusement than ours. It was fun and felt almost like a bizarre old-fashioned variety show at one point but it fractured the already oddly slow and deliberate pace of the narrative, contrasting with its high energy music and fervent physical performances.

This is not to say that it affected the performance in a negative way. In fact, I felt as if the deliberate heaviness of the pace really helped convey the building menace behind the frivolity. Indeed, as our heroine’s feet are severed from her cursed red shoes, Lady Lydia casually swings her microphone downwards in order to amplify the screams of agony, an expression of ghoulish delight upon her face as the audience cringes.

One might be fooled into believing that this production focuses only upon the very visceral reactions of provoking uneasiness within the audience and then releasing this tension through laughter, therefore lacking a more thought-provoking, emotional impact. For me however, this whole production is tinged with a sense of sadness and loss, so subtle that it might not truly resonate until afterwards, and this mood is beautifully encapsulated by the physicality of the performers. Our heroine dances a steamy duet with a soldier, their feet tapping together upon the stage in perfect unison, and yet, when the soldier returns upon crutches, their attempts to renew this waltz fail miserably and one sadly longs for the clipping sounds of a pair of feet in perfect time again. The physical prowess of our heroine, played expertly by Patrycja Kujawska, deserves a special mention, truly capturing the anguish of her character’s curse to never stop dancing through her fantastically flaying movements and frantic tapping. Visually beautiful and perfectly capturing the mood of a Halloween show, The Red Shoes was truly a fantastic performance.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.