Review: The Red Shoes

Review: The Red Shoes

Jenny Booth assesses what superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne has added to a classic tale of passion, romance – and dance.

Any production by Sir Matthew Bourne is event theatre and that is very much true of The Red Shoes. This dark and devilish tale has been shaped into an incredibly intense show.

Ambitious, red-haired ballerina Victoria Page manages to wangle her way into the impresario Lermontov’s dance troupe. When the prima ballerina hurts her ankle Victoria gets her chance. She makes her name in a new ballet called The Red Shoes, a sinister and passionate tale of cursed shoes that force the wearer to dance herself to death.

At the height of her success Victoria – now in love with Julian, the young composer of the Red Shoes – is given an ultimatum by Lermontov, who adores her artistry in an almost religious way. Victoria and Julian quit the dance troupe, but are reduced to working in a music hall show, and soon their peace and fulfilment with each other are undermined. When she takes the red ballet shoes out of a suitcase, you know she is about to make a fatal choice.

Sir Matthew says the original 1948 Powell and Pressburger film has been a huge career inspiration to him, and his production more than does justice to the film’s complex layers of meaning and emotion.

The richness of the symbolism, the skill of the dancers added to the sheer intelligence of the production, are almost overwhelming. Thank goodness for Sir Matthew’s trademark comic touches, small human moments like the dogsbody who drinks straight from the decanter because there isn’t a glass for him, which lighten the mood and provide a moment’s respite from the intensity of the action.

The red shoes represent an object of desire, but also the dancer’s ruthless ambition and the impresario’s dreams of artistic perfection. In the play within a play (which, as in Hamlet, magnifies and distorts the main action) the shoes exercise demonic control, and represent a harsh and inhuman taskmaster that will demand everything from a performer, even their life.

Every scene is perfectly crafted. The style is synchronised at every level, as the sumptuous period costumes are matched with the sets with the choreography. A scene follows scene, it is like looking at a series of iconic images: now Degas’s dancers in the footlights, now frightening and forbidding Vorticism, now a 1940s holiday postcard from the French Riviera.

The set designer has artfully used a mini proscenium arch as a frame for the play within a play. The arch is used at key moments throughout, symbolising the theatrical world of the story, the personal dramas, the way the characters are trapped within the demands of their art. The mood darkens as the action accelerates towards the final, devastating denouement.

The action moves so fast, indeed, that the audience have to pay 100% attention. It’s easy to miss a pivotal plot moment. Why exactly did Victoria and Julian leave Lermontov’s dance troupe? I don’t know because I was looking at my notes in the split second that that was signalled.

“It’s SOOOOO much better the second time round,” I overheard one audience member saying in the interval and I had some sympathy with this. On a second viewing, you’d be sure you understood what was happening, and could relax and appreciate the artistry of Sir Matthew’s amazing dance company.


Matthew Bourne’s production of The Red Shoes will be touring the UK throughout 2020. Check out Time & Leisure’s interview with Matthew here.