Review: Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes, Sadler’s Wells


Taking on a stage adaptation of an iconic film can be a nightmare proposition yet this hasn’t fazed Matthew Bourne with this, his take on the legendary The Red Shoes. And there is certainly much to admire in this production – a sumptuous production design, a terrific corps de ballet (who very nearly steal the show completely) and a gaiety that makes the show eminently watchable.

But here’s the thing – I don’t love The Red Shoes for its lightness; I adore it for its darkness, and I’m not sure this production quite captures the drama and the intensity of the famous film.

This ballet very much follows the film, where Victoria Page (Ashley Shaw) grabs her opportunity for the spotlight in a ballet of The Red Shoes. However, though the show is a success, her manager, Boris Lermontov (Sam Archer) is angered by her blossoming personal relationship with the composer, Julian Craster (Dominic North) and threatens to kick her out of the show if she doesn’t end the relationship. And, obviously, it all ends badly from here.

The magical realism is captured beautifully, especially in the ‘show within a show’ that is The Red Shoes, which springboards our Victoria Page to success. And the way this then feeds out into reality, how these demonic, possessed shoes become a symbol of what consumes and threatens to destroy our heroine.

But I found it hard to get too involved, to get under the skin of these characters. A key reason for this is the lack of chemistry between the leads. You don’t buy into them as a couple and they aren’t the emotional hook you desperately need to root for if we’re going to care. There is no spark between Ashley Shaw’s Victoria Page and her composer-lover, Dominic North. And they’re given no passionate pas-de-deux to bring their love to life.

In fact, their affair comes right out the blue and it just isn’t believable that she would walk out on the show for him. A romantic piece is carved out for the duo at a closing party, but the choreography seemed more focus on the acrobatic rather than the emotional and lyrical, and the night I went, some of the lifts were awkward and jerky. This isn’t a passion that anchors the plot.

And, similarly, I had hoped that Ashley Shaw would be given a terrific, dramatic solo to demonstrate the anxiety of a woman torn between her two passions – her lover and her dancing. But other than quite a frenzied section at the climax, we aren’t given that. And, as a result, this Victoria Page isn’t a fully fleshed out character.

This seems harsh, I know, and perhaps a lot of my concerns here could be linked to having recently seen English National Ballet’s radical reworking of Giselle which wasn’t just breath-taking, but also possibly the show of the year. In comparison with that choreography, and that show’s drama and darkness, The Red Shoes seems diluted.

But there are some great moments here. Michela Meazza and Liam Mower as the fading prima ballerina of the stage and her accomplice are a scream. Delightful and witty, particularly Michela Meazza whose half-hearted arabesques and full-on drama have a touch of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo about them (a guilty pleasure of mine!) And, as I said before, the corps are excellent.

I don’t want to be completely down on this production – it’s an enjoyable two hours and offers another way of bringing this great story to life and, hopefully, introducing a new audience to the tale. However, I’m just unconvinced that the right emotional balance between light and shade has been caught, not all the choreography showcases the characters and leads at their best, and when your enduring memory of a dark drama are the laughs, well, something has gone a bit awry.

Sadler’s Wells, London to January 29, 2017

All production images © Johan Persson

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