Muddy reviews: Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes, Bristol

I was Red Shoe-shamed when I was about nine: sent off a rehearsal stage in front of a theatre full of other small wannabe ballerinas and their doting mums, with a red face to match the bright red leather ballet shoes I was wearing instead of regulation pale pink (sorry, my mum hadn’t a clue). In Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures production of The Red Shoes, now on at the Bristol Hippodrome, aspiring ballerina Vicky Page can’t take hers off – with tragic consequences (but a great night out for the rest of us)…

Photo: Johan Persson

Based on the 1948 Pressburger & Powell film of the same name, which in turn was inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, it’s the story of an aspiring ballerina who sacrifices everything for her art. Set in the late 1940s, the production glissades and jetes back and forth between London, Paris and Monte Carlo, as Vicky  (Ashley Shaw) first joins the Ballet Lermotov company and then falls under the spell of slick, moustachioed Svengali-like impressario Boris (Sam Archer). Note to self: beware, slick moustachieod types. A cleverly revolving theatre contraption (just looked it up and it’s called a ‘proscenium arch’) takes the audience back stage,  then front of house then back again; to different rooms in different places.

Photo: Johan Persson

You don’t have to be a ballet fan to enjoy Matthew Bourne’s work. The Red Shoes is highly dramatic, very visual with lots of humourous touches and characterisation. But of course, the choreography is witty, full of surprises and the dancing from the principles and the company breathtakingly good. At times it was almost like watching a technicolour silent movie, with a soaring, eclectic score (much of it the music of Hollywood Golden Age Bernard Herrmann who collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles) that draws you into the story – and the emotions. It’s a real rollercoaster: in one scene the stage is filled with jolly bathers with oversized beach balls on the French Riveria; the Ballet of the Red Shoes, which ends Act I, is a monochrome fantasy turned nightmare, with Art Deco staging and Dali-esque touches, shades of The Birds and hints of all sorts of other psychological nasties. Crikey, by the interval I really needed that glass of red.

Photo: Johan Persson

Act II finds Vicky falling in love with the company’s struggling and slightly awkward composer Julian Craster (Chris Trenfield) and they’ve some touching scenes together.

Photo: Johan Persson/

After leaving the company, the pair find themselves in a tatty East End music hall alongside hilarious Eygptian sand dancers, some long-john-wearing muscle men and show girls. But the pull of the ballet and Lermontov is too great and Vicky’s compelled to return to Monte Carlo to put on the red shoes once more. The end, when it comes (very suddenly) is shocking and seemed to leave most of us in the audience reeling before getting to our feet to give the company a thundering standing ovation.  It was an unforgettable evening– and the teen with me, who’d never seen a ballet before, said her eyes ‘didn’t leave the stage once’ – praise indeed.

The Red Shoes is on at the Bristol Hippodrome until Sat 8 April. Get tickets here.

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