“Have you seen her shoes?!”
The Red Shoes, one of Kneehigh’s most famous shows, has returned to Battersea Arts Centre where it started 10 years ago for a final run in the UK as part of the 30th birthday celebrations of this venue. It retells a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale of a young girl who longs for a pair of gorgeous red shoes yet when her desire is fulfilled, their addictiveness drives her beyond all reason and beyond the help of society as she cannot stop dancing until they, and her feet, are removed. It does this through a music hall frame though, so the performers arrive in ghostly make-up and men’s underwear and vie to be picked for roles in the storytelling by narrator and MC Lady Lydia, a Noel Fielding-like character who also provides. There’s also interludes with magic tricks which play up the cabaret feel, although I was not a fan of them to be honest.
There’s a real inventiveness and playfulness to proceedings as the physically dextrous performers rush around transforming themselves into any number of characters which are beautifully defined, providing musical and dance support at the drop of a hat, and allowing Patrycja Kujawska as the girl with the shoes to sustain the mood of wonder transmuted into horror as the consequences of untrammelled desire are revealed. Her wide-eyed openness was a pleasure to watch but I also enjoyed Rόbert Lučkay and Dave Mynne in the ensemble and Giles King’s charismatic turn as the MC conducting from his perch above the stage. There’s a soundtrack of darkly rhythmic classical music initially highly atmospheric though becoming a little relentless towards the end, which is supported by 2 musicians at either side of the stage with a range of instruments, including trombones.
One of the (unscripted) highlights of the show was when one of the performers pouncing on an audience member in the front row whose iPhone went off in the middle of the show, taking the phone from her and only returning it at the end of the curtain call, it being produced it from the underpants of one of the others. It just reinforced to me that this ought to be standard practice (not necessarily the underpants) but people having their phones just confiscated off them til the end of the performance, I would happily support this motion!
Oddly though despite my admiration for what I saw, I am not quite sure how I really felt about The Red Shoes. Partly because of the weight of expectation I suspect, Kneehigh are frequently spoken of with hushed reverence, but also partly because this always felt studiously concerned with the performance, it was all a little too arch, too knowing, and resultantly lacking in a real emotional connection. There were moments of visual beauty, unafraid of delving deep into the macabre and dark heart of the fairytale as well as making us laugh, but by also pulling back and making us question our own emotional responses during the show, it produces a detachment from the theatrical experience which ultimately is something I just don’t really like. I prefer to be immersed in the moment and then do my questioning in the pub afterwards, but then each to their own. If you are interested in Kneehigh’s work though, I would recommend going along as they are saying this will be the last chance to see this show in the UK, though you are now able to see another of their productions in the West End, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I’ll be seeing next weekend.