Depending on how you look at it, Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes is either a delight or an exercise in frustration. The majority of the theatergoers at this performance seemed thrilled with everything. I was continually vexed because I was seldom sure what was going on. Don’t ask me when tragic Victoria Page fell in love with composer Julian Craster. I’m clueless. Suddenly they were an item but he kept taking off his glasses and when he did, I couldn’t tell him from at least three other cast members so she seemed rather promiscuous, unless I was confusing her with the other redhead in the cast. In fact, I couldn’t be sure which character was which much of the time. I was quite certain about Irina Boronskaya, the prima ballerina. She was a delightful character played with extravagant campiness by Michela Meazza. She was only exceeded by the swishing premier danseur, Ivan Bodeslawsky, played by Liam Mower. Sam Archer was pretty good as Lermontov, the impresario, but I thought he was also another character… more confusion. They were all wearing similar costumes, which exacerbated the identification problem. Plot bits kept getting lost because they took place during larger dance numbers. The burden of clear storytelling rests firmly with the choreographer and when I don’t understand something, I don’t accept it and move on. This show has numerous problems with clarity. There were too many examples of muddled narrative to cite them all but clearly more is afoot. Why did everyone seem so happy with the show? The answer is probably in the stagecraft.

Ashley Shaw (Victoria Page) in <i>The Red Shoes</i> © Johan Persson
Ashley Shaw (Victoria Page) in The Red Shoes
© Johan Persson

Taken at face value and ignoring its shortcomings, The Red Shoes still succeeds as entertainment. There is no end of theatrical spectacle. To start, there is an inset mobile proscenium that represents the show within the show. Suspended from the rafters, it moves downstage and upstage and rotates 180 degrees so that we are alternately watching from backstage and from the audience. The device works and is used often. We watch the first show of the ballet company in London, first from the front, and then the proscenium recedes and flips. Now we’re backstage and we can see Victoria Page and her aunt in the “audience” on the other side of the proscenium which is now at the back of the stage. There are layers of meta here but you’ll need a scorecard to keep track. The accompanying recorded music, a pastiche of selections from noted film composer Bernard Herrmann, is as melodramatic as the action and is perfect for the show. It is unfortunately ear-stabbingly over-amplified but, as with the plot holes, no one seemed to mind.

Ashley Shaw was engaging and a fine actress as Victoria Page. She’s not a top shelf ballet dancer but she’s certainly good for this show. None of the cast are top-notch ballet dancers but this is theater first, ballet second. I don’t know how much my perception of the show would have changed by seeing Sara Mearns and Marcelo Gomes in the leads but I suspect not much. Much as I love these dancers, Shaw really is a good actress. Bourne doesn’t miss a trick in mining the different choreographic styles to create this work. There is no end of jokes, small and large. The social dance in the first act was the most fun, with Lady Neston rolling her eyes in boredom. The send-up of Les Sylphides had Meazza’s prima ballerina carrying her costume from one place to another, too bored to pretend to care about yet another performance. The music hall scene was pure comedy.

The Red Shoes Ballet, another show within the show, goes in the opposite direction of the 1948 film. Where the film sequence was color-saturated, Bourne rendered it in black and white with vivid red only for Victoria, after she puts on the red shoes, and the diabolical shoemaker. I was taken aback when this character and Lermontov appeared on stage together as I had assumed they were the same person. Yet another layer was added by creating another stage within the stage, all white, with projections to illustrate the scenery. Again, there was plenty of confusion as to what precisely was going on but the melodrama swept aside all concerns. To increase the meta-factor, there was recorded applause after the little ballet ended and we were both the audience as audience and the audience for Lermontov’s ballet company. I felt somewhat manipulated into being more enthusiastic than I felt by the absurd volume of the recorded applause.

I’m sure that I could sort out all my confusion if I watched the show at least twice more but I don’t think I will. Judging by everyone else's reaction, I concluded that most people go to shows to be entertained, not to engage. If you want to get the most out of this show you have to know every bit of the story, watch it like a hawk and go at least twice, preferably three times. But as passively received entertainment, it’s great.