The Red Shoes

Presented by Kneehigh Theatre and Arts Projects Australia
Reviewed Thursday 3rd February 2011

Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Grote Street
Season: to Sat Feb 2011
Duration: 90min
Tickets: adult $45/conc $40/under 30s $29
Bookings: BASS 131 241 or

This Hans Christian Anderson cautionary fairy tale, like many others, particularly those of the Brothers Grimm, has been sanitised over the generations. The version that you may know probably bears only scant resemblance to the original. This production, adapted by Emma Rice, goes back to its sources, in all its gory detail. The members of Kneehigh Theatre, under the direction of Emma Rice, have created a surreal work that strips away the modern veneer of gentile reinvention.

The performance begins in the foyer, with members of the cast mingling with the audience and playing music as they wander through the crowd. Each of the cast is clad only in a grimy singlet and underpants, a blank canvas onto which the characters in the story are painted, by addition of simple costumes.

Once inside they continue to roam around the auditorium as the audience enters and settles, eventually taking to the stage to perform. There is then a ritualistic washing of feet before they don black, traditional Cornish clogs; all except The Girl, who remains barefoot. Lady Lydia appears and, having introduced herself as the narrator, proceeds to tell the tale. Giles King gives a commanding performance as the character who rules over the others from on high atop the set, allocating them their roles as they crave his indulgence. With more female characters than male, and the only female performer playing only one role, The Girl, there is much cross-dressing. What little text there is, mainly delivered by King, is the poetry of Anna Maria Murphy.

Patrycja Kujawska is The Girl, silently portraying her character’s journey from a naive, innocent young girl who develops an obsession with a pair of red shoes, wearing them to church and being ostracised, then, condemned to wear them forever, dancing eternally, ever more frenzied. In her final desperation, she pleads with the butcher to chop off her feet, which he does, replacing them with wooden feet. Kujawska is magnificent as she traverses the immense changes through which her character goes during the course of the narrative, from her pleasure at obtaining the shoes to the haunted expression as she reaches the depths of despair.

The Girl is alone, initially, but is adopted by The Old Lady, a kindly blind woman who washes The Girl, dresses her in clean, white underclothes, a white christening dress and buys her new shoes. Blind, she cannot see that the shoes are blood-red and The Girl lies to her, insisting that they are black. As The Girl’s descent progresses her dress symbolically becomes more torn, revealing red beneath, finally leaving her in a red dress.

Dave Mynne, as The Old Lady and The Preacher’s Wife, Robert Luckay, as The Soldier and The Shoemaker, and Mike Shepherd, as The Preacher, the Angel and The Butcher, each create clearly defined characters in each of their roles. Individually and as an ensemble they are terrific.

With a wide range of music, from Aram Khachaturian, to Phillip Glass, to a good sprinkling of music from Jacques Offenbach’s Gaite Parisienne, and including much that was written for the work by Stu Barker, there is plenty for The Girl to dance to. Multi-instrumentalists, Barker and Ian Ross perform, one each side of the stage, as an integral part of the ensemble.

Although based in physical theatre, there is a bizarre range of theatrical styles that switch to and fro between cabaret, comedy, circus, Brechtian theatre and several others. This adds to the disorientation and throws the audience along different paths as the story twists and turns.

Bill Mitchell’s stark design, winding stairs and a scaffold, with sets of doors moved to form various locations, is extremely well suited to the work and well-lit by Malcolm Rippeth. The sound, which is often so very important, is by Simon Baker and, although there is a film projected, there is so much else happening that it goes almost unnoticed.

This is a remarkable piece of theatre and a treat for those jaded by so much mundane work that is generally on offer. We must hope that this group returns with more of their wonderfully inventive work.

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.

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