Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes

Matthew Bourne, based on the film by Michael Powell and Emmeric Pressburger
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The Red Shoes

Sir Matthew Bourne is almost certainly the most successful contemporary exponent of dance theatre. Not only is his choreography and direction always impeccable, but he is also an expert at conveying a storyline using a combination of imagination and wit that can prove as intoxicating for those steeped in theatre as dance fans.

The film version of The Red Shoes, directed by the legendary pairing of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in 1948, is set in the world of dance and therefore lends itself to the Bourne treatment, which converted into a multi-Olivier-award-winning production.

In no time at all, viewers learn vast amounts about those famously touchy artistic temperaments, whether from a testy prima ballerina who knows that her career is very close to its sell-by date, her hysterical, gun-toting partner (respectively danced by Michela Meazza and original Billy Elliott Liam Mower), Adam Cooper in the role of Boris Lermontov the impresario of the ballet company that takes his name or insecure aspirants ballerina Victoria Page and composer Julian Craster.

Designer Lez Brotherston does a lovely job of taking us back to the 1940s, both with stage settings based around a rotating proscenium arch as the company crosses from London to France and back, but also costumes that allow dancers flexibility at the same time as reminding viewers about the fashions of the post-war period. One must also never forget those literally iconic, titular red shoes, which almost take on a life of their own thanks to the sterling work of lighting designer Paule Constable.

This ballet, which premièred at the end of 2016, was choreographed to film music by Bernard Herrmann, orchestrated by Terry Davies. This features extracts from classics such as Citizen Kane, complements the dance and never gets in the way of a predictable but charming plot.

Having commissioned Craster to compose a ballet based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale that gives the piece its title, Lermontov then finds himself cajoling and remonstrating in equal measures as the key players jostle for position.

As this is happening, Dominic North’s Julian Craster and Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page, who has been cast in the lead role, overcome earlier artistic differences to find romance in sun-kissed Monte Carlo, following a highly amusing beach scene featuring some skills borrowed from rhythmic gymnastics. Their love causes complications that multiply in a company led by the kind of impresario who expects to get very close to his leading ladies. The tug of love is critical to the ballet itself but also even more atmospherically when replicated in the ballet within the ballet.

While the acting is deliberately melodramatic, Ashley Shaw in the leading role injects a greater degree of painful realism and also leads the dancing company from the front, alongside Liam Mower.

The 95-minute main feature is supplemented by an additional 30-minute extra on The Making of The Red Shoes, comprising interviews with all of the main players.

While it could never replace the excitement of a visit to Sadler’s Wells to enjoy a live performance, a Blu-ray recording of any of Matthew Bourne’s work, including this sumptuous reimagining of a classic movie, costs far less and is a pleasure that will endure and can be watched on repeated occasions.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher