Kneehigh’s resurrection of The Red Shoes is a dark, joyous, raggedy affair. Like the obsession that this cabaret explores, director Emma Rice has been drawn back to the show that won her a TMA Award in 2002.
In this adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale of adolescent yearning, an orphaned girl is adopted by a prudish old lady who gives her blood red shoes that make her dance ecstatically. When she tries to pull them off, she finds she can’t stop dancing.
The team’s experience is evident from the opening. Four actors dressed only in pants and vests clamber on stage and scrub their feet with water from tin washbasins. They scrub deliberately and vigorously, glancing at us with the mischievous accusation that by watching, we’re complicit in what’s to come. It brilliantly foreshadows the story’s interest in whether we can wash away the desires that drive us, or must abandon ourselves to the bodies that must bear them.
As the girl, Patrycja Kujawska is a perfect mix of exuberant and glum youth, dancing with a hunger that seems to burst out of her bones. Giles King smoulders as the arch Lady Lydia, the MC who dresses chorus members up as different characters like a child selecting from a toy box.
Kneehigh give symbols their proper space so that they resonate without being contrived: rabbits that greet the girl playfully at the start of the piece finish off trussed up and dripping in a butcher’s shop.
The pivotal scene of horror is hidden from our eyes, but not from our ears. Lady Lydia teasingly lowers a microphone behind a screen to amplify the sounds of an act that is too gory to watch, an exquisite example of the sensitivity to withdraw performance and let the audience colour in with their imagination. I covered my face even though there was nothing to see. At other times, though, I was laughing out loud - the narrative is broken up with bouts of horseplay and escapology.
After a very obvious climax, the show tries to sustain its spectacle for a little too long in a dramatic salvation scene. Following some very real pain, the metaphorical struggle between the girl and a God dressed like Biggles seems like false grandeur which pushes towards something less authentic. At the close though, we still believe in the gristly magic of the red shoes: testament to Kneehigh’s unrivalled expertise in what they do.