Liam Mower as Ivan Boleslawsky and Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page in the fated red shoes.

Pictures: Johan Persson

The Red Shoes

Birmingham Hippodrome


It’s a rare thing with any revered and well established production, that the resident audience are treated to a personal Q and A with its creator.

That though was the privilege of those in attendance on the opening night of The Red Shoes, with Sir Matthew Bourne himself topping off this beautiful production.

In the 20 minutes or so we were treated to not only an insight into the creation of the double Olivier Award winning The Red Shoes, but the company, its future and his approach in creating contempory ballet.

His presence in the audience we learned was a common one, having seen his own show hundreds of times and vital to his idea that any work is in a continuing process of development and one that can only be appreciated within and ultimately for his audience.  

It seems something of a calling then, that for someone in Bourne’s position, a film made in 1948 by Powell and Pressburger, The Red Shoes about a touring ballet company, would make such an impression upon him as a young man. The film based on the Hans Cristian Anderson fairy tale, tells of an exceptional dancer, Victoria Page, whose passion for dance leads to her end. One day she is gifted a pair of Red dance shoes by a stranger that will never allow the wearer to stop dancing once they were put on.

The original film featured the work of Jack Cardiff*, a celebrated British cinematographer, whose creative camera work and experiments with Technicolor, gave the movie and his subsequent work on films like A Matter of life and death, its surreal appearance. It certainly has influenced this New Adventures version as now it’s a ballet of a film about a ballet. However the once macabre fairy tale about the lust and desire for fame is now Bourne’s examination of the love of art, its toll on real life and here the obsession of one woman, loved by two men for very different reasons.  

red victoria

Victoria and her shoes, danced by former Elmhurst pupil Ashley Shaw

Bourne clearly has an identity (no pun) and both champions and is passionate about new, young talent, admitting that on any one night you might see a different cast than the night before. It’s an admirable `job sharing ‘approach that clearly has built a highly proficient and experienced company that shine in every role, not matter how small.

That work ethic is clearly paying off and in the lead role of the fated Victoria, the young Ashley Shaw, who trained at Birmingham’s own Elmhurst Ballet School, made a significant impact throughout every part of her very challenging performance. Victoria falls (no pun again) for the ballet composer Julian Kraster, danced on this night by Dominic North. There is both tenderness and passion in their several duets as their love grows inside their own fantasy world of the theatre, but it becomes crushed and tense by the weight of their mundane, everyday real lives.

Other than the dance, much of Bourne’s story is told with exaggerated looks and asides and none more so effective is with Michela Meazza as the Russian Prima Ballerina, Irina Boronskaya. Besides dancing beautifully, she depicts her disdain at the arrival of Victoria in the company with her melodramatic often comic expressions.

Reece Causton danced the role of Boris Lermontov, and infused his performance with a stoic manner to convey the obsession and then desperate loss and eventual separation from his beloved Victoria.

Whilst this is a dark tragedy of epic proportions, humour prevails throughout, from the tired glances of the bored women at a black tie cocktail party, to the sleazy boards of the London Musical hall. In the latter a very funny sand dance takes centre stage, whilst the common feathered showgirls looked on smoking their cigarettes back stage, and a ventriloquist dummy humorously takes a shine to the beautiful Victoria.

On a technical level this touring show spares no expense or design craft in recreating the many settings required to cover this expansive story. Bourne’s go to set and costume designer Lez Brotherston, uses a central revolving truss with a velvet theatre curtain, which takes us both front of house and back stage with a simple turn.

The rich fluid colours echo Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor film contrasting them to a severe transfer to a dynamic contempory, monotone and geometric set. This is complete with stunning animated projections by Duncan McLean that fuse and enhance the choreography perfectly. All of this is then additionally brought to life with some outstanding lighting by Paule Constable. For once, the lighting creatively works with the emotion of every scene and dynamically frames the dancers’ shapes, fully developing the romance of this love story.

It does this production a disservice and limits its appeal, to simply call The Red Shoes a ballet. This is a theatrical experience that happens to feature ballet at its heart. With dance becoming an increasingly popular choice for new television shows, Bourne has instinctively and creatively fused the elegance of ballet with elements of contempory dance in a highly visual and entertaining way. It’s an approach that in the future is sure to capture that new and ongoing wave of popular dance interest.

With Bourne’s closing Q and A on the night, he clearly shows he is listening to his audience and wants to take them with him on his journey. There is a passion for dance and entertainment here and that subtle balance translates beautifully to the stage.

With a career that has seen countless awards and international success he hints at new work both large and small to come. Ironically it would seem then that the one person, who metaphorically has The Red Shoes on and can’t stop dancing, is Sir Matthew Bourne himself. To 15-02-20

Jeff Grant


*Jack Cardiff -  Review of Prism at Birmingham Rep

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