Review: The Red Shoes - Matthew Bourne/New Adventures - Sadler's Wells

Performance: The Red Shoes is playing at Sadler’s Wells til January 29, 2017.
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 21 December 2016

Performance reviewed: 14 December 2016

Matthew Bourne has stepped out of his comfort zone to take a huge risk with The Red Shoes. His tried and tested genre – one that he owns almost exclusively – lies in deconstructing popular narratives (mostly the stories of ballet) and presenting them in a different time, place and/or context.

His productions of Swan Lake, Nutcracker!, The Car Man, Highland Fling, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are all variations on this theme. But, this greatest of modern day showmen has chosen to launch the 30th anniversary of his company, New Adventures, by fulfilling an ambition, harboured for more than twenty years, to take on this cinematic icon. Not with a view to repackaging it but as an homage, literally bringing the Powell and Pressburger film to the stage.

Authenticity is the byword for this gorgeous production. It is not only authentic in terms of its representation of the film but in an all-embracing vintage style that absolutely evokes the ideals and imagery of Les Ballets Russes, as interpreted through the fictional Ballet Lermontov. Life backstage, reflecting the paintings of Les Ballets Russes by Laura Knight, is parodied with great humour and affection. There is also a delightful cameo of an East End Music Hall with its down-at-heel showgirls and a pair of skinny, lewd vaudevillians brilliantly parodying Wilson and Keppel’s faux-Egyptian sand dance (sadly, these performers were uncredited).

Fans of the film should not be disappointed in a production that evokes the immediate post-war age superbly with set, costumes and lighting all outstanding contributions to a five-star show. The staging is glorious and Lez Brotherston’s designs are the work of genius, particularly the revolving proscenium arch that brought both front and back stage to life. Paule Constable’s lighting designs did much to enhance the vintage atmosphere from the Society soirèe of a fine Mayfair house to the beach at Monte Carlo.

Bourne’s choreography is cleverly constructed to give wonderful imitative capsules of actual ballets, performed by the Lermontov troupe (Les Sylphides and a deliciously tempting snippet of something like Ashton’s Dante Sonata); plus the fictional ballet within the ballet, the interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale, which captured the essence of the Helpmann and Massine choreography from the 1948 film without slavishly following it.

By the way, I first saw the film, stretched out on a tiny sofa, in the little den at the back of my grandmother’s house. I was around 10 years old: it was late at night and I was transfixed. I have watched it again, almost every year since.

In my eyes, to be successful, the main characters have to be absolutely believable against the original characterisations, which remain etched in the memory of all those who love the film but without resorting to pastiche or mimicry. This is another of the production’s greatest achievements, led by Ashley Shaw’s outstanding portrayal of Vicky Page. She achieved the epitome of Moira Shearer’s image, her flame-red hair absolutely perfect in both style and Technicolor effect. Page’s journey of shyness and ambition was articulated beautifully and, even more astonishingly, she looked and danced as if she was a ballerina of 1948 vintage. Put simply, Shaw was sensational.

Michela Meazza was also just right as the Lermontov lead ballerina, Irina Boronskaja (a mash-up on the names of two of Les Ballet Russes’ three “baby ballerinas”, Irina Baronova and Tatiana Riabouchinska). In fact, Meazza absolutely put me in mind of the third “baby”, Tamara Toumanova, both physically and by brilliantly essaying a similar languid and insouciant elegance. The rehearsal scene when Meazza marks her steps by walking her costume through the role was hilarious! Playing the role of Ivan Boleslawsky, Liam Mower also managed a fair assimilation of Robert Helpmann, comically going through the motions, abjectly bored, with a cigarette permanently dangling from his lower lip.

The ambition and obstinacy of Julian Craster – obsessed with both his music and his love for Page – also transferred well from screen to stage in a fine performance by Dominic North. At first, I worried that Sam Archer was too youthful to play Boris Lermontov and he was certainly the furthest removed physically from his character in the film (that unforgettable portrayal by Anton Walbrook). Nonetheless, the authority and enigma of Lermontov was finely etched into Archer’s excellent performance. And, there was no difficulty recognising Léonide Massine in Glenn Graham’s portrayal of the Lermontov ballet master, Grischa Ljubov.

Another directorial decision that worked superbly was the choice of Bernard Herrmann’s film scores as the source of the music for The Red Shoes. It works so well because it is filmic, largely contemporaneous with the Powell/Pressburger film and – as orchestrated by Terry Davies – it is haunting, melodic music for dance. Herrmann passed away more than 40 years ago but how wonderful that his scores for The Ghost & Mrs Muir (another of my favourite films, made just a year prior to The Red Shoes), Fahrenheit 451 and Citizen Kane have found another life.

I started this review by speaking of authenticity and this is nowhere more apparent than in Brotherston’s accuracy in his choice of costumes. It is so easy to get this wrong but Brotherston’s research was almost spot-on. Both the characters of Boronskaja and Page wear gorgeous ‘New Look’ couture; Dior’s revolutionary new style that had hit the fashion world in 1947. Their outfits at the London soirée included a fit and flare, full-skirted suit with a short-waisted, very-fitted jacket and a calf-length sunray, pleated skirt. However, in Monte Carlo, the Ballet Lermontov’s corps de ballet wear “pre-New Look” sun dresses, which is great design observation that deserves credit since Boronskaja and Page were comparatively wealthy and would certainly have been wearing ‘New Look’ in 1948 but the less affluent company members would more likely have been wearing dresses from former seasons. I said “almost spot-on” because out of all the costumes worn – and some were from earlier times, such as the women’s high-waisted trousers, which is fine since they could still be worn – the only aberration was one of the dresses worn by the three bored women dancing with their partners at the beginning of Lady Neston’s soirée, which was a blue and gold brocade dress that seems to be 50s style (in fact, Audrey Hepburn wears a similar dress in the 1954 film. Sabrina). And, by the way, this is being really picky!

Having loved The Red Shoes from childhood it was a revelation to discover it all over again, viewed through a slightly different prism, as Matthew Bourne and his New Adventures’ team presented an innovative take on the Powell/Pressburger vision with huge affection and faithful authenticity. It has come late but I think Bourne’s The Red Shoes must rival Akram Khan’s Giselle as the show of the year.

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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