'Red Shoes' review or 'Kneehigh dances back into the BAC'

Red Shoes, Kneehigh Theatre Company
Battersea Arts Centre, Thursday 3rd March 2011
Written for Culture Wars

Kneehigh's 'Red Shoes' have been dancing for an awfully long time. They first stomped into the BAC in 1990 and now Emma Rice's show is back, over a decade later, to mark this brave venue's 30th anniversary. It remains a deeply creative and stubbornly unique show; a strange mix of pantomime, dance and poetry.  

'Red Shoes' celebrates theatre's ability to tell a good story – or, at least, it's ability to have a damn good try. That's lucky really, since the show is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's blood-red fairytale. Rather than papering over the cracks and creating a complete, self-contained production, Kneehigh emphasizes the idea  of a story being retold. Clever little touches lightly tap us on our shoulder, constantly reminding us this is a recreation, a reinterpretation – and certainly not magic.
So, the costumes and props are carried on stage in a labelled suitcase. When the young girl, the protagonist in this tale, gets into a car, she stands behind a suitcase labelled 'car door'. When she finally acquires her fatal red shows, they are pulled out of a case that emits a harsh, red glow. And when her shoes or clothes are taken flying through the air, the fishing rod to which they are attached is held in plan sight by a massive, overdressed and unimpressed drag-queen. 

Lady Lydia: not easily impressed
The actors frequently break the spell of 'illusion', stepping out of character and directly addressing the audience. Often, in a manner that feels Shakespearean, the play is halted abruptly and entertaining diversions, seemingly disconnected from the show, are introduced to keep the audience on its toes. A number of times, the scenes are curtailed in favour of botched magic tricks, laughably lame but purposefully so.

Justine tries to perform escapology - and fails miserably.
These touches remind us that there's no such thing as magic; or, at least, that magic is really just sexed-up reality. The show encourages us to make our own magic. This message is reinforced by Emma Rice's new ending, which sees the girl's independent (and, in the story, blasphemous) spirit celebrated rather than condemned.
But this reworking of the final moments and message does create problems. In the original story, which is laced with  a cold and probing darkness, the unsettling overtones come tumbling out in the fairytale's moralistic conclusion. The story's rumbling threat is released through a final and fatal punishment. But such release isn't  possible with this altered, more optimistic ending. It makes for an odd conclusion, which side-steps the threat of comeuppance that glows in the dark underbelly of this story.  

Still, though the encouraging ending feels oddly unsatisfying the journey often exhilarates. Patrycja Kujawska is enchanting as the scarlet-shod girl, initially liberated and later fettered by her glamorous red shoes. When she first puts on her shoes, she smiles, impish and guilty, like a lady who's just bolted down a massive cadbury's crème egg. She oozes guilty pleasure. 

The ensemble performs a surreal clown act throughout, reaching out to the audience with uncertain smiles, as they play their instruments, whiz through their costume changes and occasionally soar through the air. They are best when they take their performances one step too far; when the priest gets particularly over-zealous and thrusts his pelvis out at the congregation, or the man playing a young girl grows especially silly and demure, or the butcher spills over into parody, glib yet grotesque.

Giles King, playing the drag queen narrator 'Lady Lydia', seems uncertain where to take his performance. At times, his reserved turn reminds one of James Franco's stint at The Oscars; both look like men reluctant to embrace their roles head on. No doubt this cynicism is meant to add to the overall malaise, or world-weariness, that permeates this grownup fairytale but it does damage the play's poetry in places. Anna Maria's lyrical script, often in rhyming couples, is quirky and fun but suffers when delivered without complete conviction.

Near the end, King's Lady Lydia removes her drag costume and strips down to  the white-washed uniform of the ensemble. She or he encourages the audience to 'dare to dance a different dance'. And, despite a few stumbles, Kneehigh certainly knows how to rave to its own, crazy music. 


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