The Red Shoes started as a fairytale written by Hans Christian Andersen but was used by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger as the basis for a memorable film made in 1948. The film broke boundaries, peeking into the passionate world of ballet and professional theatre. It features a love triangle between Victoria Page, a young dancer, her lover Julian Craster and the obsessive ballet impresario Boris Lermontov. 

Matthew Bourne has stuck closely to the film’s storyline for his contemporary ballet reinterpretation, although he has changed the music, with this sumptuous stage production featuring a lot of the music of Bernard Herrmann, who provided film music for a diverse range of Hollywood films from Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver. You will recognise themes.

Bourne always fills his stage with action and spectacle, indeed this show has one of the most ambitious and complex sets that I have ever seen on the Norwich Theatre Royal stage, with a separate extra proscenium arch which moves around the stage taking us both front and back of an imagined theatre. An amusing detail is that this is the second show at the Theatre in two weeks to feature a proscenium arch on stage, last week’s show being Curtains.

For Matthew Bourne the show is all about the dance, and this is up there with the best. His New Adventures company brings some of our best dancers to the stage. The cast are rotated, so no show will be identical and the pressures of leading are distributed amongst the dancers. For this show Ashley Shaw played Victoria, with Stephen Murray as Julian. Glenn Graham plays Boris Lermontov, with the always eye-catching Cordelia Braithwaite as the prima ballerina Irina Boronskaya.

The story follows Victoria through casting auditions to her early starring role in a ballet written for her, also called The Red Shoes. Julian has been commissioned to write the music, and he and Vicky come together and fall in love. But Lermontov harbours a yearning for Vicky, and learning of her affair with Julian fires him, but she follows. Bourne then takes them to the world of the London music hall, where Vicky has to perform in risqué cabaret numbers. A glorious segment of this sees two of the cast giving a rather camp but wonderfully accurate rendition of the Sand Dance, made famous by Wilson, Keppel and Betty. It looks for a minute as though Vicky will become another ‘Betty’, but she resists their charms.

Lermontov finds Vicky and persuades her to return to stage in The Red Shoes. Followed by a despairing Julian the scene is set for tragedy. 

In line with the original fairytale the red shoes seem to possess a magical effect upon their wearer, who cannot stop dancing, and they seem to possess Victoria and draw her away from her lover Julian. They symbolise the concept of art worth dying for. This is a ballet, but without any of the stuffy convention of traditional ballet performances. The skilled cast tell a story in dance, music and movement that is clear to follow and needs no dialogue. I still meet many people who have never been to a ballet and do not want to sample it, fearing they will not like it. As ever, Matthew Bourne gives us a show that is a great spectacle but also a fine introduction to the  medium of ballet, just the show to get you into understanding ballet. This is a show with everything – romance, spectacle, beauty, heartbreak, tension, and humour. The staging is great fun, and it looks like an enjoyable if demanding production for those on stage.

The Red Shoes is a delight to see and enjoy and will appeal to anyone who likes great music and sublime dancing, all set in a breathtakingly impressive set with a strong and engaging storyline. Not a show to miss!

© Julian Swainson 2020

Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes, Tuesday 18 to Saturday 22 February, 2020. Eves 7.30pm. Thu & Sat matinee 2.30pm. Tickets £10-£46.50. Discounts for Friends, Over 60s, Under 18s and Groups. For more info or to BOOK ONLINE