The Red Shoes – Milton Keynes Theatre

Director and Choreographer: Matthew Bourne

Reviewer:  Katy Roberts

Throughout his illustrious career, for which he was awarded a knighthood last year, Matthew Bourne has enchanted audiences worldwide with his imaginative retellings of fairy tales (Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella), classic ballets (Swan Lake), and beloved films (Edward Scissorhands). For his latest venture, Bourne has combined the two latter elements, bringing Powell and Pressburger’s iconic 1948 film, The Red Shoes, to the stage. It is the perfect fit for Bourne and his company, New Adventures, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year; Bourne’s take on The Red Shoes is a sublime love letter to the world of ballet and is unmissable.

The Red Shoes tells the story of Vicky Page (Ashley Shaw), an aspiring ballerina who catches the eye of impresario Boris Lermontov (Sam Archer), the director of a well-respected ballet company. Lermontov invites Vicky, along with Julian Craster (Dominic North), an enthusiastic young composer, to join their company. Under the watchful, and seductive (in Vicky’s case), eye of Lermontov, the two realise their gifts – until Vicky and Julian fall in love, and threaten Lermontov’s plans. Vicky is tortuously caught between her commitment to her craft, and her love for Julian, with ultimately devastating consequences.

Like Vicky, everyone on stage and behind is clearly consumed by their work. Ashley Shaw is an absolute triumph in the lead role; her expressions throughout (both physical and facial), show us a young woman agonisingly caught between her two passions – her art and the man she loves – and how much pain and torment trying to choose causes her. The gut-wrenching humiliation she suffers when her dreams at the Lermontov Ballet go awry, and the heartbreaking final scene when Vicky’s dreams become a nightmare and consume her completely are so powerful that they feel almost viscerally painful.

Dominic North is the perfect Julian; his adoration and admiration for Vicky is so keenly felt throughout that the final scenes are devastating to watch as we, like Julian, can only watch helplessly as Vicky moves ever-closer to oblivion despite Julian’s desperate attempts to try and draw her back to him – the pas de deux in their London bedsit is a particularly affecting moment.

Sam Archer is a brooding Lermontov, sharp and authoritative, and who, unlike the rest of the company, retains a ramrod stillness throughout. However, when he dances with Vicky, he is mesmerising to watch; a puppet master, slowly seducing and cherishing his marionette – Vicky is his most prized possession – all at once.

The rehearsal scenes with the ensemble are brilliantly well-observed, and perfectly capture the chaos and flaring tempers of life backstage at an Opera House. Liam Mower’s Ivan is particularly interesting to watch, languidly walking through his paces during a stage call, full of easy confidence, but instantly sparking with annoyance backstage at the slightest error in rehearsal – a familiar face to many in the world of theatre, and dance, no doubt.

Lez Brotherston, a long-time collaborator with Bourne, has created a stunning mobile proscenium arch – which is almost a dancer in its own right alongside the company – that sweeps the action gracefully along, between front and backstage, Amid the glamour of the Opera House; invoking scenes from Hollywood’s Golden Age: a battered old piano here, fur coats, sequins, feathers, and tap-dancing, before the action takes us to a sun-soaked Monte Carlo coastline, and back again, to London. The arch is also used to fantastic effect in one of the show’s final scenes; a curtain obscures the left side of the stage, revealing Lermontov’s office on the right, then sweeping round to reveal Vicky and Julian’s bedsit, and back again, effortlessly. The staging of The Red Shoes ballet at the close of Act 1 is a stunning piece of theatre – the use of silhouettes, and monochrome throughout, in contrast to Vicky in searing scarlet, is mesmerisingly realised. The slight modern touches, such as the costumes, also work brilliantly, giving us something other than the norm – which audiences have, of course, come to expect from Bourne – so synonymous is he with subverting the usual ways of presenting stories to us.

To complement the staging, Paule Constable’s expressive lighting switches and shifts between the warm, golden grandeur of the Riviera to the grotty dimness of a tatty East End music hall, perfectly capturing the change from fantasy to reality, and the steady and sinister blurring of those lines as Vicky is lured in deeper and deeper by her obsession. Continuing the homage to Hollywood, the show’s incredible music is expertly pieced together from composer Bernard Herrmann’s early work. The resulting final score is stunningly orchestrated and arranged by Terry Davies, beautifully showcasing the story’s lush romance, but also making it very clear from the outset that daggers are cloaked beneath the velvet melodies.

Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes is, without a doubt, one of his finest works, and a triumphant addition to his already incredible repertoire. Full of passion, drama and romance, and performed by an outstanding cast against a stunning and innovative set, it transports you into Vicky, Julian and the Lermontov Ballet’s world instantly – the show’s 100-minute runtime flows by in a heartbeat. Do not miss this.

Runs until 18 February 2017 and on tour | Image: Johan Persson

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