Based on the 1948 film of the same name, starring Moira Shearer, Matthew Bourne’s production of The Red Shoes tells the story of ballerina Victoria Page and her tragic struggle between love and duty. Both the film and Matthew Bourne’s production are inspired by Han Christian Andersen’s fairytale of a young girl who defies conservative values by wearing her red shoes to church. These devilish shoes betray their owner, forcing her to dance to her death.
Set and costume designs by Lez Brotherston transport the audience back to 1948, when ballet was an emerging and mysterious art form. Thickly draped red curtains act as a centrepiece, rotating from front to back, allowing the spectators into the elusive and intriguing world of the Ballet Lermontov. A palette of rich colours, opulent gold detail, dramatic side lighting (by Paule Constable) and flickering projections combine to create a glamorous yet dangerous world, hounded by shadow and darkness.
However, far from creating a pure, Gothic melodrama, this production is full of comic surprises. In one such moment, a pair of arrogant ballet stars give a lacklustre dress rehearsal, waving costumes on hangers, clicking impatiently at the follow spot and giving fake, simpering smiles. Throughout the show, thrusting hips, comedy congas and even inflatable beach balls break the dramatic tension, keeping the audience engaged at every turn.
Matthew Bourne’s choreography weaves intriguing characters and beautiful images; a constant source of delights from beginning to end. Expressive Victoria Page comes to live with gorgeous sweeping gestures that break the mould of classic ballet. We see the passion of conductor Julian Craster as he wields his baton like pen, fizzing with creative energy. Impresario Boris Lermontov oozes brooding power, with commanding expansive moments and a striking side profile, his head resting dramatically on one hand.
Bourne’s storytelling is unparalleled; every emotion of this complex story is laid bare, making The Red Shoes accessible for every audience member. He retains the beauty of classical ballet, yet adds off-balance physicality of contemporary dance and the expressive gesture of musical theatre. This is ballet without any inhibitions, excelling with a blend of tradition and innovation which feels fresh and exciting.
The undoubted star of the show is Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page. Her technical performance is brilliant, with gorgeous feet and luscious arms; every movement feels secure and effortless. Shaw’s commitment to the part is unflinching, from her early breathtaking confidence, all dazzling speed and coy glances, to the wide-eyed terror and distracted, impetuous movements that lead up to her gut-wrenching suicide. Her resemblance to Moira Shearer, the original Victoria Page, is uncanny, yet she creates her own interpretation of this hugely iconic role.
Sam Archer demonstrates formidable stage presence as Boris Lermontov, commanding full attention with even the subtlest of movements. Chris Trenfield’s Julian Craster is youthful and romantic, with lovely elevation. Danny Reubens stands out as Mikhail, with impressive, dynamic leaps.
Combining haunting images from the original fairytale, glamorous parallels to the film, and the innovative choreography of Matthew Bourne, The Red Shoes is an exciting cocktail of beauty, passion and tragedy that keeps the audience hooked throughout. With a heart-breaking performance from Ashley Shaw at its heart, this production is a near faultless example of narrative ballet.
The Red Shoes is at Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 11 February, and returns 19-22 July. Tickets are available here.