Based loosely on the Powell and Pressburger classic film, this reimagining of the reimagined Hans Christian Andersen fairytale is a typically stylish Matthew Bourne affair.
A swirling and becurtained proscenium arch dominates the show, a metaphorical and physical divide between life and art and itself a key player in the two hours of dance.
The establishing scenes are technically adept, with great corp work and some playful touches – including a Gautier-alike version of Monte Carlo, complete with beach balls and longing for cutesy sailor hats. The early scenes lack a little of the passion and flamboyance you expect from Bourne, but we’re not denied for long, and in retrospect it is a valuable contrast.
The ballet within the ballet is a shocking, enrapturing Gallic monochrome nightmare, with Ashley Shaw’s Victoria Page becoming more and more bedraggled and bedevelled. As the evil eponymous shoes drive her on, she becomes physically and emotionally overwrought – and we join with her as the footwear fatally pushes her on, barely drawing breath as the seasons pass on.
This central piece is really the climax, although the reprise and other later scenes have their own surprising charms.
There are several strong supporting performances, noticeably Sam Archer (ballet chief Lermontov), Dominic North (composer and lover Craster), and Michela Meazza (rival leading lady Irina). The uncredited Egyptian sand dancers (yes, really) also make a unexpected and successful contribution.
Lez Brotherston’s sets and costumes triumphantly contrast the lush physical opulence of the ballet house with harsh, geometric, and dreamlike projections during the Red Shoes proper and are laden with thoughtful details; the gradual shredding of Page’s dress during the main sequence is just one.
Bourne’s changes to the story do remove a little of the emotional resonance of the film’s story: Page and Craster’s courtship is heavily curtailed, and Lermontov discarding Irina for breaking an ankle instead of announcing an engagement shifts his character too.
What he retains is the dazzling visuals that made the film – and Great Yarmouth-born cinematographer Jack Cardiff – famous, with an inventive and involving production. This run opened with the 100th performance of The Red Shoes; those feet are going to keep on dancing for a long time yet.