Shoes to Fill – The Actors’ Church, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Tanya Bridgeman

Director: Alex Miller

Every generation believes it is the first to know what life is really about, but for writer and performer Tanya Bridgeman the stories of her very different grandmothers who both uprooted their homes and moved to England in the 1950s is the inspiration behind her new monologue Shoes to Fill. Premiering at St Paul’s Churchyard in Covent Garden this 65-minute tale shows a young woman using the lessons of the past to tackle her paralysing social anxiety.

Unable to take her shoes off and afraid of touching any floor with her bare feet, a woman known only as ‘Granddaughter’ worries that putting her trainers on the bed will bring bad luck. But soon all of her shoes have disappeared and as a result Granddaughter is crippled with anxiety, unable to move around the house until calls from her Irish grandmother and the memories of her Bajan “gran-gran” get her moving.

Bridgeman’s play runs on two parallel tracks; the first explores what appears to be a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder as Granddaughter struggles to cope with the loss of her footwear – much of which is namechecked within the story and is clearly a point of pride for the character. Triggered by leaving her job, its removal, creates a mania as Granddaughter goes to extreme, often amusing, lengths to cover her feet using pillowcases, shoeboxes and flattened plastic bottles.

There is a great adventure-movie sequence as the suddenly determined and energetic protagonist remembers a pair of trainers under the sofa, and so ensues an elaborate escapade involving pillows, a duvet and some yoga mats each assigned video game-levels of achievement. But the underlying causes are not considered in any depth, and Shoes to Fill could do more to consider where Granddaughter’s anxiety originated and the depressive symptoms her shoe quandary initially creates.

The play’s second path focuses on the lives of the two grandmothers whose memories of the past intrude on and are infused throughout Granddaughter’s mission. Bridgeman draws a line for the audience between the two women who independently moved to the UK to work in hospitals and faced continued prejudice and abuse. How they overcame that rejection to establish lives and families here is something that Bridgemen uses to fire the determination of her central character.

Bridgeman represents all three women, adopting a stoop and walking stick to play her relative from Barbados and supplies a pre-recorded vocal as her Irish antecedent, affectionately capturing the inflections and speech patterns of both, although it is never clear whether they met in real life with the grandmothers only referring to times before they were married. But Bridgeman is an engaging performer, taking time to connect with individual audience members and creating investment in Granddaughter’s plight.

Despite the muddy conditions at St Paul’s Churchyard, designer Charlotte Dennis creates a cosy pseudo-bedroom using a multi-tasking thrust stage and a selection of soft furnishings as well as shawls as indicative costumes to support the instant immersion that Bridgeman’s poetic rhythms create so well.

Shoes to Fill needs to draw some slightly stronger links between the contemporary pressures that Granddaughter experiences and the inspiring determination of earlier generations to better understand the play’s dual structure, but Bridgeman has found a novel way to consider family legacy and the bravery of those who came before.

Runs until 10 July 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

An engaging performer

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