Victoria Page, danced by Ashley Shaw, with the fated red shoes. Pictures: Johan Persson

Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes

Birmingham Hippodrome


Let’s start this review by admitting we are not ballet critics. We can collectively count our ballet attendance on two hands.

However our pre-show chat brought the realisation that our first ballet experience – which we shared – was in fact at Birmingham Hippodrome for Matthew Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands in 2008.

This memory alleviated some of our ballet nerves and within moments we were immersed in a spectacular cinematic dance experience.

The first half sees our protagonists Victoria Page, played by the incredible Ashley Shaw, and Julian Craster, performed by Chris Trenfield, striving for their art.

Inspired by each other, they work relentlessly to achieve their dreams and the recognition of ballet impresario, Boris Lermontov, performed by the brooding Sam Archer. The storytelling through this first half was joyful, we laughed (something we hadn’t expected at the ballet) and willed our protagonists from London to Monte Carlo, a simple but clever blue skies and reflective sea set, and the opening night of The Red Shoes.

red shoes mid 

From there we were transported to the ballet within the ballet and the dark fairytale of The Red Shoes. The staging from set to character was epically cinematic from the allure of the red shoes themselves to the black and white Wizard of Oz-esque tornado where the dancers were transformed into leaves tumbling around, sweeping us away with the possessed red shoes that would not stop dancing.

The ballet ends to thunderous applause, both real and part of the ballet, and with a sweep of the on-stage curtain, cleverly mirroring the movement of the dancers, we are back to the theatre in the theatre to share in the successes of Victoria and Julian.

The second half opens with our couple enjoying their romantic love ultimately to the detriment of their relationships with ballet impresario, Lermontov, who wants to control both the ballet itself and Victoria as his prima ballerina and, over the remainder of the ballet, we see each driven mad by their relationship to The Red Shoes and each other. Yet, amidst this darkness, the scene in the Music Hall is particularly humorous and brings to life yet another version of ballet alongside the many others featuring in the piece. 

We imagine most people in the auditorium were expecting the ending, we were not, and we gasped both at the shocking impact for the characters, but also once again at the stirring theatrical staging.

This is tragedy but it is not the sadness of the story that hits you so much as the incredible drama and the art of the piece. The glittering red shoes are an apt and powerful symbol of the fire and danger of the passions involved and also of the striking, dramatic impact of ballet as an art form itself.

The set design for The Red Shoes is wonderful. Created by Lez Brotherston, it is both simple and at times incredibly sophisticated making fantastic use of light and projection and moves with the dancers, taking the audience effortlessly behind the scenes, indoors and outdoors. The inner and outer struggles of Victoria, Julian and Lermontov are played out through the impressive dance and the amazing score arranged by Terry Davies, which draws on the work of Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann and builds dramatically to its conclusion.

An evening of wonderful story telling, moving effortlessly from light to dark, packed full of emotion and drama, an incredible dance experience which ended, rightly so, with a standing ovation for the dancers. We might not be ballet critics but we know what it is to be swept away at the theatre and that is what Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes achieves both in terms of its story of ambition and obsession but also through its cinematic staging and the literal sweep of the on-stage curtain.

Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes sold out when it visited Birmingham Hippodrome in February this year and it is clear why. There is limited availability this week, you have until Saturday 22 July – don’t miss out!

Helen Annetts and Liz Victor.


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