Writer: E.V. Crowe
Director: Vicky Featherstone
British Theatre has a rich history of responding to national events with inventive forms. In the current COVID-19 crisis, as British stage productions were cut short, and theatres went dark, actor Bertie Carvel founded the Lockdown Theatre Festival. Carvel sent microphones to actor’s homes, and designed a new space where stage productions were reimagined for the radio.
Director Vicky Featherstone introduces the Royal Court’s Shoe Lady with a stark reminder that British theatre is in free fall. This is a fitting prologue, because so too is Viv (Katherine Parkinson), the shoe lady. Wife and mother, with a career in real estate selling dream lifestyles, Viv seemingly has it all. But beneath this public persona is a refrain of self-doubt, tiredness, anxiety, and the failure to take her allocated holiday because she is too afraid to ask.
We meet Viv on a weekday morning. Husband Kenny is beside her in bed. It is his turn to sort the breakfast— Shreddies. A window curtain has fallen to the ground. She simply cannot go out until it is fixed. When the Curtains (Tom Kanji, and Kayla Meikle) slide into bed with Viv, smooth down her hair, and then start talking, we have slipped inside Viv’s fragile mind. One missing shoe, and a bleeding foot follow. Viv is struggling to cope withthe pressures of modern life.
There are echoes of Winnie from Beckett’s Happy Days, or Mouth in Not I. In fact, the play is near enough a one woman show. Viv’s internal monologue unfolds like a stream of consciousness from the moment we meet her. E.V. Crowe’s script feeds Viv with bursts of short staccato dialogue and Parkinson makes excellent use of her distinctive breathy voice, playing with octaves, pace, and rhythm, like a perfectly tuned instrument.
In the Royal Court stage production, Featherstone placed a travelator— one of those moving walkways – centre stage, constantly propelling Parkinson in motion. Here, we lose this clever visual, and although chaotic momentum is established with an episodic structure, there are so many events unfolding around Viv in less than an hour, that the story is sometimes difficult to follow.
Yet, Crowe’s short absurdist drama succeeds at capturing Viv’s fractured journey as she jumps between posh flats, upmarket shoe shops, trendy cafes, police stations and toilet cubicles. Steve Bond and Adam Woodhams’s sound does not produce a sense of world– traffic, crowds of people, or birdsong are faint, if there at all. This works well to reflect Viv’s increasing isolation. In between each scene Matthew Herbert’s piano refrain builds to an atonal crescendo. Parkinson also showcases her gorgeous singing voice, evoking Sally Bowles with a disquieting cabaret song. A child (Archer Brandon) reads the stage directions and later appears as a tree. These effects subtly hint to the vulnerability beneath Viv’s perfect exterior.
This is a play about the modern world and high expectations, where ‘good enough’ simply will not do. The Royal Court’s run of Shoe Lady was forced to close early and there will have been many Vivs who, like us, were forced to slow down and consider whether it is time for the shoe to be on someone else’s foot.
Available here on BBC Sounds until 13 July 2020