“On a very basic level, all I’ve ever wanted to do is entertain people. That’s what it’s about, and sometimes people forget that.”
So says, Sir Matthew Bourne in his impressively well-attended post-show chat. Judging by the turnout for this Tuesday evening performance of his adaptation of Powell and Pressberger’s 1948 film, he’s doing rather well in that respect.
Bourne has choreographed to music largely composed by Bernard Herrmann, cleverly lifting and adapting from the scores of classic movies such as Fahrenheit 451, The Ghost and Mrs Muir, even Citizen Kane. Original compositions by Terry Davies have been deftly interwoven with these, to create an atmosphere of period romance and cinemascope high drama.
The great ballet impressario, Boris Lermontov, is relaxing at a rather swish after-show party. Two young and aspiring artists – one a composer, Julian Craster, the other a dancer, Victoria Page – are desperate to impress him. Despite the competitive friction between the two young people, each desperate to steal the other’s thunder, Lermontov offers both a chance.
Having successfully auditioned for the corps de ballet, Victoria continues to catch Lermontov’s eye and, when prima ballerina, Irina Boronskaya, twists her ankle, it is the new girl who is offered the chance to step into the limelight. She does not, however, step into La Boronskaya’s shoes, instead being presented with a pair of red dancing slippers – the fateful red shoes of the title.
The new ballet in which Victoria debuts, is called “The Red Shoes” (the show within a show aspect). It is presented against a striking, animated monochrome backdrop – beautiful, if occasionally dizzying, work by projection designer, Duncan McLean.
As their careers take flight, so does the bond between Julian and Victoria, their early disputes being replaced by mutual attraction and love. When Lermontov catches them in a passionate embrace after the curtain falls, he is consumed with jealousy.
Banished by Lermontov, Julian and Victoria find themselves eeking out a living by working in music hall – he plays the piano, while she is reduced to being a balletic prop in a strong men act. (Fans of music hall ventriloquists, and sand dancing duo, Wilson and Kepple will be delighted – sadly, no sign of Betty, as yet.)
In a split stage, we move from the tormented Lermontov – tortured by the absence of his young prima ballerina – to the disintegrating relationship of Victoria and Julian. These two episodes show Bourne at his finest: the choreographic narrative is clear without being overly explanatory, allowing his excellent dancers to exemplify his claim that they are ‘strong actors as well as performers’.
Deserting her lover, Victoria returns to Lermontov, donning once more the fatally seductive red shoes. It all ends tragically (if perhaps a little too abruptly). Hans Christian Andersen eat your heart out.
If the first half of this show is three star fare (lively and interesting, but never quite captivating), the second act is undeniably five star. Lez Brotherston’s set features a remarkable rotating proscenium arch, which skates around and among the dancers, providing a memorable contribution to the choreography.
Ashley Shaw reprises to the role of Victoria, persuasively carrying us through her changing moods – winningly ambitious ingenue, triumphant artiste, passionate and heartbroken lover, hopeless and fatally obsessive dancer.
Michela Meazza is imperious as the temperamental Irina, by turn funny, furious and fabulous.
Adam Cooper’s return to the company as Lermontov is on its own, to coin a phrase, worth the ticket price. His brief solo, clad in a scarlet smoking jacket, pounds with emotion without sacrificing his razor sharp technique. Truly marvellous.★ ★ ★ ★
Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes is at The Lowry, Salford Quays from 26-30 November 2019.
Read our interview with Matthew Bourne about The Red Shoes.