The Red Shoes – Review

Ashley shaw in The Red Shoes. Images Johan Persson.

You could tie yourself in knots following the trajectory of choreographer Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes, a ballet about a choreographer staging a ballet called The Red Shoes that’s based on a film, that came from a fairy tale, about an impresario staging a ballet called The Red Shoes.

Like a hall of mirrors, this engrossing production offers so many reflections that it is occasionally difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Bourne’s Red Shoes, which opened last night to a standing ovation at a sold-out Milton Keynes Theatre, is, without question, a stunning masterpiece and, we hope, created without the demonic overtones of its fictional doppelgangers.

This ballet – that contains a ballet within – is probably Bourne at his most traditional and least sexy. That’s no criticism. But for a man who likes to push boundaries and create innovative dance, here he finds himself in the late 1940s and must return to tutus and classical steps for his fictional Russian ballet company.

Once again dance’s shining and most inventive star has turned to Hollywood for his inspiration. In this case Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s iconic and Oscar-winning take on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, which made a star of flame-haired dancer and actress Moira Shearer.

Stepping into Bourne’s multi-faceted mirror, is his young star Ashley Shaw, who, probably much like the original fairy story of aspiring ballet dancer Vernonica Page, started her career with the choreographer’s New Adventures production company dreaming of becoming a prima ballerina.

Where fact and fiction go their separate ways is in the detail. The Red Shoes sees the talented and ambitious Miss Page sell her soul in return for fame and a pair of magnificently lit, and undoubtedly possessed, red ballet shoes.

She dances at her aunt’s soiree in front of arrogant ballet impresario, Boris Lermontov (last night a glowering Sam Archer) who runs the Ballet Lermontov.

There’s absolutely no similarity between him and Sir Matthew but one can’t help wondering whether he was drawn to the parallels – some stronger than others – running through the story.

He has called his Red Shoes “a love letter to theatre and dance” and that is clear. It’s also a vision shared by his talented, and regular, team of designers.

Once again Lez Brotherston comes up with fabulous costume and set designs, Paule Constable’s creative lighting techniques are ingenious and the use of video projection gives the production a filmic quality.

Through sheer persistence Veronica finds herself in Lermontov’s company – in a very lowly position – until a convenient accident puts the star out of action and a replacement must be found for a thrilling new ballet being created called The Red Shoes.

Lermontov finds himself inexplicably drawn to the rising young star, becoming increasingly infatuated. At the same time she becomes closer to the company’s struggling young composer, Julian (Dominic North). Inevitably choices must be made.

It’s hard to single out individual performances because they are always so perfect from every member of the New Adventures company.

North is exceptional, as is Archer, but the spotlight falls, inevitably on the young dancer striving for stardom.

Ashley Shaw’s dancing is breathtaking which is more down to sheer talent than a very lovely pair of enchanted ballet shoes. In one scene she rams them on her tiny feet, without doing them up, and dances, the ribbons flapping on the floor.

I held my breath terrified that she would step on them and trip. But, of course, she never did.

As with all of Matthew Bourne productions, the principal roles are shared and also dancing the role of Victoria, is local girl Cordelia Braithwaite (from Leighton Buzzard) and Katrina Lyndon.

Without seeing either of the other two girls’ performances I can guarantee that whoever is on will be astonishing.

We expect nothing less from this creative genius (who demonstrates a wry sense of humour by including a bit of Wilson & Keppel’s iconic sand dance in the production).

But I’m sure that he doesn’t drill his rising stars as hard as Ballet Lermontov’s exacting ballet master Grischa Ljubov (Glenn Graham) who has the ability to make or break a dancer – with or without red shoes.

My only very, very, small criticism is a long-standing bugbear of mine – music. I appreciate that the costs are almost certainly prohibitive but I yearn to see a Matthew Bourne production accompanied by a live orchestra.

When everything else in a production is perfection, it is disappointing that the music is pre-recorded by an in-house orchestra and then left to the mercy of ropey sound systems in theatres around the country.

Here we have Bernard Herrmann’s golden score and, last night, the music sounded thin and tinny, the bass reverbed terribly and unless you were sitting in the middle of the stalls (which I wasn’t), any chance of stereo sound was lost.

Bringing the New Adventures Orchestra on tour would elevate a masterpiece into something quite phenomenal.

The Red Shoes continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday before continuing a UK tour.

Review Rating
  • The Red Shoes


Ashley Shaw stars the role of a lifetime in Matthew Bourne’s love-letter to theatre & dance, The Red Shoes, a tale of passion, ambition and obsession.

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