While Kneehigh prepares to open The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in the West End, one of its signature productions, The Red Shoes, returns to BAC, where it was first launched ten years ago, as part of the arts centre’s 30th anniversary celebrations.
It’s an odd, spiky, rather self-consciously chilling piece of work, directly plugged into the Hans Christian Andersen story of the little girl who wears her beloved red shoes in church and suffers accordingly, caught up in a whirlwind can-can before the shoes are removed – along with her feet.
Emma Rice’s production, which is playing at BAC for six weeks, features six actors in utilitarian white underwear who inhabit the theatre like ghosts, faces fixed in expressions of mask-like rigour. The proceedings are conducted, and narrated, by Giles King’s transvestite granny at an upper level.
The po-faced 90-minute presentation looks a little dated now, and the unattractive squawking of the granny, along with the diabolic recorded soundtrack (Liszt and Wagner), supplemented by some random trombone-blowing by two of the cast, seated at the edge of the stage, makes for a depressing archness after a while.
Nor did I “get” the point of Mike Shepherd, Kneehigh’s founder, breaking off at one point to say to a note-taking customer (not sure if she was a critic): “You’re writing it down: this is serious.” Immediately afterwards, we heard the dull thud of the machete and the sawing of limbs behind a screen.
But as a jangling, jaundiced vaudeville, the show is a collector’s item, and the mood uncompromisingly sustained by Patrycja Kujawska’s shaven-headed girl and the versatile, hollow-eyed cavortings of Dave Mynne and Robert Luckay as melodramatic minions.