Emma Rice directs her own adaptation of The Red Shoes from the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. But forget sickly sweet versions involving delicate red satin ballet pumps, for Kneehigh returns us brutally to the gory, grisly intentions of the original.
It’s a story of obsession and temptation, forbidden fruit and eternal retribution, narrated by Lady Lydia Giles King, a tawdrily glamorous creature who asks if we can resist our own obsessions and desires.
A poor orphan girl becomes the protegé of a blind, wealthy Old Lady John Surman, who insists that The Girl Bec Applebee is brought up in modesty and humility, wearing only black as befits her station.
The Shoemaker Luis Santiago, makes her a pair of blood-red tap-dancing clogs (actually designed by Vivienne Westwood). By deceiving The Old Lady and succumbing to her longing to possess the shoes, The Girl is no longer mistress of her own fate. The shoes whirl her along through life, dancing her giddily and unwillingly away from any chance of happiness.
The Girl finds that the shoes will not be parted from her feet and she pleads with The Butcher Mike Shepherd to rid her of them. The severed feet, still wearing the shoes, continue to dance on their own. The Girl is very nearly carried off to heaven by The Angel, again played by Shepherd, but her true and newly discovered self triumphantly shakes him off and she turns bravely to face the future with renewed hope.
Without uttering a word throughout, Bec Applebee is hugely expressive as The Girl. Her boundless vitality is an exhausting and exciting spectacle. Other members of the cast play multiple parts and deserve credit for each one, as every creation is a complete characterisation in itself. The continuous musical accompaniment from Stu Barker to the story is perfectly selected, and Bill Mitchell’s set is a practical framework for our imaginations and the cast's energetic performances.
With manic cabaret acts, clever clog dance choreography from Karen Lockley and gruesome and bloody effects eliciting agonised groans of disbelief from the audience, this is physical theatre at its most exciting. From the opening moments, involving characters in nothing but dirty white underwear and carrying brown suitcases, to the final thunderously triumphant scene, the audience is whipped along with the dynamism of this delicious and irresistible play.
Annie Dawes (reviewed at Plymouth Theatre Royal)