Shoe Lady

E V Crowe
The Royal Court / Reduced Listening / Lockdown Theatre Festival
BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds

Shoe Lady Credit: Manuel Harlan
Shoe Lady Credit: Tristram Kenton
Shoe Lady Credit: Manuel Harlan

Not sure I can claim to be an avid radio fan. While I listen regularly to Radio 4, I tend to use it as background while doing chores. Whenever I really try and concentrate on a radio show, I end up shutting my eyes and unintentionally dozing off. Still, I’m not going to miss the Lockdown Theatre Festival which offers the chance to catch stage plays that were shut down by the crisis before completing (or in one case starting) their run. The original casts have been recorded individually at home and merged together by the wonders of technology.

E V Crowe’s Shoe Lady is a bitter analysis of present-day working life where staff are afraid taking annual leave could be interpreted as disloyalty and find whatever aspects of their personal life they sacrifice is not considered enough by rapacious employers. When written, the play was aimed at the professional class who have no money but, to keep up appearances, shop at Waitrose.

However, the radio adaptation shows the play has unexpected relevance for workers in lockdown. The gnawing fear of redundancy will resonate with anyone furloughed and wondering if they will still have a job when the crisis is over. A harassed working mother mourns the loss of vanity and luxuries such as daily showers while home workers might find the absence of colleagues means they simply lose interest in such trivia.

The daily pressures of working life are so intense for Viv (Katherine Parkinson), what ought to be a minor inconvenience becomes a major obstacle. The loss of a shoe sends Viv on a desperate quest to recover / replace the lost footwear and perhaps comprehend how her life became so focused on work, such a trivial event can be so significant and to consider if simply giving up would be preferable.

Adapting Shoe Lady to radio raises challenges as photographs indicate it was a full stage production with a cast, props, physical movement and interaction between the characters. A working treadmill, one imagines, served as a visual metaphor for the relentless nature of modern working life.

However, the use of a narrative voiceover helps set the scenes for the listener and, in any case, there is the feeling the play is close to a monologue. Viv is a J G Ballard type character—an ordinary person who finds the features of everyday life have become alien and even hostile. There is the strong possibility the other characters are aspects of her inner turmoil. A homeless person represents the perils of refusing to conform to the norms of working life but also raises the possibility embracing chaos and stepping outside the system might not be that bad.

Katherine Parkinson makes Viv very much a protagonist for the lockdown era. Constantly perky and striving to be seen doing the right thing but inwardly despairing of her circumstances and coming close to giving up.

The radio transmission of Shoe Lady has not only preserved the play but given it a new relevance for the unprecedented circumstances which we are all enduring.

Reviewer: David Cunningham