Friday, 4 March 2011

The Red Shoes – Battersea Arts Centre, London

Director: Emma Rice
Reviewer: Toni Stott-Rates
[Rating: 3.5]

Why are folktales so threaded through the fabric of human existence that they endure and are recognisable in all their different forms, all their altered manifestations? Whimsical and dark, practical and honest these stories are to people that listen and those that tell them a way of passing on wisdom, societal norms and advice. The Red shoes is a variation on the folktale theme, a tale of a young innocent girl, who is led through need and yearning into putting on the red shoes, against the wishes of those who care for her. she does not heed the warnings and the red shoes spell her doom, as she is cursed to dance past reason, past health, past ability, till she reaches the gates of hell itself. I guess the story is one of accepting that not all things we want are going to bring us ultimate joy, even if they are the fulfilment of what we most desire, that and the fact that young girls with no parents will always end up being pursued by some sort of evil.

Many of us will recognise this premise from the Hans Christian Anderson tale and famously the 1948 film the red shoes directed by Powell and Pressburger. In Kneehigh’s version, the girl is given a lovely pair of red clog-like shoes which she is very proud of, having yearned for a pair and gone so far as painting her feet to make them look like they had shoes on. This version explores many of the same issues that all versions of this story might look into, the sadness of those who warn her not to wear the shoes, the society who judges her for allowing herself to be carried away by the passion and obsession of the shoes, and ultimately the despair of the girl as she realises she is trapped to dance till her death unless in this version she finds another way.

This show is enjoyable, massively enjoyable, but as is always the case with stories that have been told hundreds of times it is predictable, because you already know it inside out. Kneehigh however make it fun. The macabre story is presided over and told by a creature who looks like a cross between the MC from Cabaret and Dr Frank N Furter from Rocky horror and enacted by his minions who look like holocaust survivors until they enthusiastically transform into any of the numerous characters in this account.

Fun is simply the best way to describe this show, never letting us dwell in the macabre elements, the sad and the mundane, the actors nimbly scrabble about pulling hilarious grinning gurning faces as they entertain and make us laugh, while asking us why we are laughing at the sad tale of the girl. Kneehigh indulge themselves and the audience with the use of simple objects transformed into many different things, memorably one floppy felt hat being folded and refolded as the actor used it to portray all the members of a church congregation.

The actors are all vastly enjoyable and talented; nimbly changing into many characters before our eyes with an energetic physical ability and a knack for clowning around.

The tale is bloody, it is not nice, nor is it meant to be, it is a kind of nightmare landscape in which we are invited to look, listen and benefit from, and while it is fun and almost magical you can never forget that it is dark and sad too. I enjoyed it extremely, but I don’t think it is necessarily for everyone. A certain amount of expectation has to be left behind and don’t assume you will see anything new, but if you sit back and enjoy the rough magic that is unfolded I think you just might be charmed.

Running till the 9th April
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