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Sam Archer as Boris Lermontov with the company. Pictures: Johan Persson

Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes

Birmingham Hippodrome


MATTHEW Bourne is a master storyteller, a peerless creator of plays without words, and this is perhaps his finest, most atmospheric, elegant and most mature production yet.

It just oozes class with its oh so graceful and stylish costumes and fabulous set all designed by long-time collaborator Lez Brotherston – creations worth a standing ovation on their own.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created an iconic and hugely influential ballet film with The Red Shoes in 1948, a play within a play based on the dark Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the same name. The film was a favourite of the teenage Bourne and this world premiere tour is the culmination of a 20-year ambition by Sir Matthew to bring the film to the stage, in his own way.

The wait has been worthwhile. Australian Ashley Shaw, a graduate of Birmingham’s Elmshurst Ballet School, dances the central role of Victoria Page quite beautifully, a little awkward as the newcomer at the start, innocent and vulnerable in turn as the power of the red shoes takes over.

She joins Ballet Lermontov, the vehicle of impresario Boris Lermontov, danced with the suave elegance and Brylcreemed hair of the 1940s by Sam Archer. Lermontov, incidentally, played by Anton Walbrook in the film, was inspired in part by Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes.

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Sam Archer as Boris Lermontov lamenting the loss of Vicky

Joining at the same time as a répétiteur and assistant conductor is struggling composer Julian Craster, danced imaginatively by Chris Trenfield – how does a pianist and conductor dance? With a baton of course although he has a more conventional and moving pas de deux with Vicky as we head towards the tragic conclusion.

The ballet moves off to Monte Carlo which gives reign to more elegant costumes and beach scenes and a performance of new ballet, The Red Shoes, with Julian’s score, a central part of the film, based on the original fairy story where the young ballerina wearing them cannot stop dancing.

But all is not well in balletland. Boris is falling for Vicky and when he discovers she is already an item with Julian, decides to eliminate the competition and sacks Julian. Only problem is, Vicky goes with him.

So our two lovebirds are reduced to appearing in music hall with the likes of strongmen, showgirls and a pair of sand dancers with a hint of a homage to Wilson, Keppel and Betty (ask grandparents or Google) in what is an amusing interlude.

Meanwhile, tragedy awaits and Vicky is called back to the red shoes by Lermontov which sets her on course for the fateful, finale.

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Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page in the eponymous ballet shoes

Around the three main characters there is good support from the likes of Anjali Mehra as prima ballerina Irina, whose injury gives Vicky her chance and Liam Mower as the Premier Danseur Ivan Boleslawsky, as well as the excellent dancers of the company.

Sir Matthew did not use Brian Easdale’s Oscar winning score from the film, which was after all a film rather than ballet score, instead raiding the back catalogue of Hollywood legend Bernard Herrmann. Thus we have music from Fahrenheit 451, Citizen Kane and The Ghost & Mrs Muir as well as music from Chopin’s Les Sylphides, with additional music from Terry Davies.

The result is music that is varied, powerful with a recurring haunting theme.

This is a production not just about the music and dance though, the technicals are quite outstanding. Brotherston’s costumes evoke the 1940s, right down to the feathered headdresses of the music hall showgirls, while his set has bare brick walls jutting from the wings and a succession of cloths and flats dropping from the flies but the whole stage is dominated by a magnificent floating proscenium complete with curtains and lights, suspended from a huge gantry. It can move from front to back of the Hippodrome’s huge stage, from side to side and the curtained proscenium can even revolve.

It means, for example, you can be front stage or back stage at the press of a button, while a scene in the second act, with one curtain closed and another open, can divide the stage into Vicky and Julian’s cheap digs and Lermontov’s room by the mere swivel of the arch, blocking each from view in turn – ingenious and quite brilliant.

And the lighting from Paule Constable is a masterclass in creating atmosphere, emphasis and mood at the slide of a control with measured back and side lighting, spots and a neat set of footlights used for their lighting more than the usual visual effect. Lessons for any aspiring set or lighting designer.

There is just so much to take in you are just swept along by the story evolving around you, which we know from the start is not going to end well. It is a magical evening of dance and visual delights, deserving of its standing ovation.

The Red Shoes dance on until 11-02-17 but is sold out – contact the box office 0844 338 5000 for returns – but is back for a second week from 19-22 July.

Roger Clarke


And the shoe on the other foot . . .


YET another triumph for New Adventures artistic director Sir Matthew Bourne as he launches the 30th year celebrations of his company with this stunning ballet now giving world premiere performances.

It is the culmination of his 20-year ambition to bring to the stage the emotional Hans Christian Andersen fairytale about a pair of red ballet shoes which force their wearer to dance until she dies.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger fashioned it into the iconic 1948 film starring Moira Shearer and Anton Walbrook, and now this ballet is sure to be regarded as a visual masterpiece with its brilliant dancing to Bernard Hermann’s music and extraordinary lighting by Paule Constable.

We see glorious action at various locations ranging from Covent Garden to Monte Carlo in the story of love and jealousy . . . legendary ballet company impressario Boris Lermontov (Sam Archer) resents composer Julian Craster (Chris Trenfield) being in love with star ballerina Victoria Page because he feels nothing should be allowed to interfere with her artistic talent.

Ashley Shaw dances superbly throughout as the tragic Victoria, and the entire cast thoroughly deserved the cheers and standing ovation from the first night audience.

The set, designed by Lez Brotherston, works brilliantly, with a revolving section which creates front and backstage as well as a bedroom for one scene, and there is breath taking drama near the end when a huge steam train, lights glaring, bursts through the curtains in the inevitable climax.

The variety of dancing in this ballet, including ballroom at times, is compelling and remarkable, with even a Palace of Varieties-style section with a pair of Egyptian sand dancers drawing hoots of laughter then cheers for a spot of hilarious shuffling, ending with one extracting a packet of cigarettes from his pants and lighting up!

Another unusual highlight comes with a spot of clever beach ballet with giant beach balls. Directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne, The Red Shoes has just about everything, including superb costumes.

The Red Shoes dance on to 11.02.17. A joyful experience, not to be missed.

Paul Marston 

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