Sir Matthew Bourne has done it again. While it would be hard to ever surpass his iconic male version of Swan Lake, his latest production of The Red Shoes is set for great success. The evening vibrates with energy, vivid imagery, excellent characterisation and plenty of humour – specific qualities which are his norm and which make the company so successful. The work has two acts and while it lasts for only two hours, including interval, he feeds us non-stop with lasting memories.

Ashley Shaw (Victoria Page) © Johan Persson
Ashley Shaw (Victoria Page)
© Johan Persson

Added to this paean of praise for its creator, is total admiration for Ashley Shaw who takes the leading role of Victoria Page, a beautiful young dancer possessed by the magical red ballet shoes that ultimately lead her to her death. Shaw is a dead ringer for Moira Shearer who created the role in the 1948 film that won three Oscars and was considered the best ballet film ever made. With a head full of burnished copper curls and a sweet angelic expressive face, she embodied the Shearer mystique and charm. For a dancer (and company) who does not normally work en pointe, she gracefully proved herself, demonstrating lyricism and a natural fluid line in her every move. 

Bourne has been a movie buff since boyhood, even collecting autographs of stage and screen stars as a teenager. He has recreated the films Dorian Gray and Edward Scissorhands into full-length ballets, while the sexy, hard-hitting story of The Car Man is highly reminiscent of The Postman Only Rings Twice. His latest work, he says, follows the original film scenario– which it does – but of course there are always those special Bourne bits that surprise and make you chuckle (such as the Egyptian sand dance duo which performs, poker-faced, à la Wilson and Keppel’s 1934 routine, at a seedy Music Hall theatre in Act 2. And while the original had plenty of dialogue delivered in superb clipped English tones with pseudo Russian accents, there is never any need for words thanks to the clarity of the choreography and the dancers’ superb characterisations.

Sam Archer (Boris Lermontov) and the company © Johan Persson
Sam Archer (Boris Lermontov) and the company
© Johan Persson

The story of The Red Shoes tells of Victoria Page hired for his ballet company by a Diaghilev–styled impresario, Boris Lermontov. She is given the lead role in a new ballet based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale and during rehearsals, falls in love with Julian Craster, the young composer of the ballet. Lermontov is jealously furious since he wants her for himself, more for her art than as a lover. He believes she should be devoted to one thing only: ballet.

The action swings from the stage of Covent Garden to the south of France and back to a run-down music hall and ‘cheap digs’, before finally, Vicky's return to the ballet company back in Monte Carlo and the tragedy of her death in front of a smoke billowing steam-train, a scene worthy of Anna Karenina’s demise. 

The sets and costumes for the ballet have been created by Bourne’s favourite designer, Lez Brotherston. Because so much is set ‘in and on stage’, he has cleverly conceived a proscenium arch with curtains taking centre stage. This swings round to show dancers performing for us, or turned so that , backs to us, they face the pretend audience. The sides are open so that we see the wings and the activities going on in them, (including the good teamwork of the stage crew) or watch a ballet class in progress. Later, on the French Riviera, bright sunshine sparkles on make-believe turquoise water.

Sam Archer (Boris Lermontov) © Johan Persson
Sam Archer (Boris Lermontov)
© Johan Persson

My favourite scene was in The Red Shoes ballet-within-a-ballet, when the ballerina  is unable to halt her dancing because of the spell. Months speed by and she dances on as autumn leaves fall and clouds scud across a darkened sky. The pace of both dancer and back projection gets faster and faster until, it seems, we too will be dragged into the whirlpool of unstoppable frenzy. 

Bourne decided not to go with the film music and chose American composer Bernard Herrmann, best known for his Hitchcock scores. However, Herrmann also composed some memorable music for films like Citizen Kane and The Ghost and Mrs Muir that fitted well with the new interpretation of the movie. Adding to the enjoyment of the performance at Sadler's Wells was the fact that the company had a live orchestra instead of its usual recorded music.

Bourne’s New Adventures has a rare breed of dancers who not only dance well but also act convincingly. Notable were: Michela Meazza as Irina Boronskaja who exudes superiority in her role as prima ballerina. Then there was Liam Mower who plays her very fey partner, Ivan Boleslawsky  demonstrating all the worst elements of male partnering. Sam Archer as Lermontov was very much the Svengali figure, manipulating the lives of his dancers in a suave, authoritative manner. Dominic North as Craster strongly showed his passion both when bashing his music out on the piano and in a gentle love duet with Vicky. However, the whole company is to be commended for making the evening a delight.