Review – The Red Shoes – Kneehigh Theatre at Battersea Arts Centre


It’s easy to rant about bad shows and rave about good ones, but what do you do about a show that leaves you walking away just feeling flat? Kneehigh has stood tall in my estimation since the first performance of theirs I saw, Brief Encounter, which displayed a knack for creating theatrical magic that left me gobsmacked and truly swept away. I love shows that let the audience use their imagination to fill in the gaps, the “Empty Space” aesthetic, and they really seem to get it …

… but not for this show. Four hardscrabble actors in dingy undershirts and BVDs, with dark circles under their eyes, attempt to make this show fly under the watchful eyes of a Jane Avril-like drag queen narrator. We have a stage that is not much more than some doors and a platform overhead; the props are rarely anything more than suitcases (cunningly labeled “Red Shoes,” “Shoemaker,” or whatever character is going to need clothing next) and costumes. The actors mug, scowl, flirt, smile, leer, and generally do their best to push their personalities forward from rude mechanicals who are only given purpose by the narrator.

The tale that is told is the basic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, full of isolation and alienation but with the original emphasis on vanity stripped out. Kneehigh’s “Girl” is lonely, her free spirit beaten down by her blind, adoptive mother; her indulgent shoes are a minor show of personality in a life otherwise focused on drudgery and obedience. When they weld themselves to her feet and she is forced to dance night and day, well, we can see she is suffering, but why has she been chosen for so much pain? Why do the people in the church turn their backs on her? In this rendition, we are left confused by her exlusion from society; it seems it can only be due to her being poor and feisty. And while it’s creepy that the shoes haunt her to the grave and beyond, there seems to be no reason for them to do so, for them to seem so bent on punishing her – and what is the final knock-down-drag-out fight with her and the angel/devil/”spirit of the shoes” about?

Going back and reading the story summary, I think the reason why I wasn’t able to engage with this story was that it was presented too much in black and white (and red); it seemed to be very much about evil shoes rather than the evils of vanity (admittedly not something modern audiences feel much horror for), and didn’t create an alternate version that I could engage with. And, despite having fine theater-craft, it was also just plain old ugly; bald actors, dirty clothing, clunky shoes, just not a moment of uplift and beauty in the whole thing (excluding the music). It was almost like, given the choice of serving us a sandwich with a rotting filling and a layer of burning horseradish relish, we just kind of got a bit of stale, moldy bread; not enough to get violently worked up about, just enough to go “ick” and then turn away. This wasn’t a horrible show, but it lacked soul and felt too much like something that had gone through the Kneehigh digestive process rather than being birthed in joy. I’m not sorry I saw it, but I feel I can clearly advise anyone who hasn’t got tickets that they’re not missing out on much. With Umbrellas of Cherbourg settling in for a nice long run at the Gielgud, there’s most likely a much better option available.

(This review is for a performance that took place on March 9th, 2011. It continues at the Battersea Arts Centre though April 9th. As a side note, when there was music, I could barely hear anything the narrator said over the endless chatter of some 6th formers two rows behind me and the crisp-packet-crinkling nightmare directly at my back, which I thought was due to being slightly deaf in my right ear; but my companion said she also couldn’t hear the narrator much of the time, so this was more due to the acoustics and miking in the venue and not so much to insanely rude audience members. That said: I’d much rather not go when the BAC’s sold a bunch of tickets to school groups as these people appear to have not been told that manners are different when watching a play as an audience member rather than when watching TV at home.)

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4 Responses to “Review – The Red Shoes – Kneehigh Theatre at Battersea Arts Centre”

  1. Moira Says:

    I’m so with you on the school party thing. I would like to boast that my 6th Form theatre club are fantastic when they go to the theatre, and I forbid them to eat!! They are so unused to the conventions. Although having said that, considering the piece they’d come to watch, they are probably Drama GCSE and their teachers should have been a lot firmer with them.

  2. webcowgirl Says:

    I remember when I went to see View from a Bridge that I was terrified about all of the “school kids” there, who were being given a lecture on proper theater behavior from their teacher … but then they were great! We were excited and it was a good experience for us – I want “kids” to be seeing shows, but the ones last night should have stayed at home.

  3. charlie Says:

    I understand about the whole ‘kids’ situation but I thought The Red Shoes was amazing. They interacted with you (he winked at some audience, he took my drink), I thought it was a very clever how they only needed a few props (like the suitcase) for you to still understand what was happening, the use of physical theatre by creating the car, the artaudion moments… it wasn’t a play where you didnt feel anything, you felt something all the time and everyone who I know went to see it loved it! There was one GCSE girl (i’m guessing) was sat at the front and began texting and the narrator took it. They didnt get angry or affended but handled it really well and made it funny. They were always in character. I thought the costumes were great – they were in a mental asylum. I thought it was fantastic.

  4. A year in blogging – Webcowgirl’s most popular posts of 2011 – and tips for improving your blog stats « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] Review – The Red Shoes – Kneehigh Theatre at Battersea Arts Centre782 […]

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