It takes more than a spot of Coronavirus to keep the crowds away from the New Wimbledon Theatre. There were few empty seats on the opening night of this short run by Matthew Bourne’s company, but there were no derrières on them by the end of the show, when the entire audience rose to their feet for a standing ovation. This was a truly wonderful experience for all of us.
The ballet is based upon the famous 1948 movie by Powell & Pressburger, and it retains the 1948 setting, with a marvellous array of period costumes and hairstyles. The central theme is faithfully adhered to, in which a beautiful and talented ingénue is torn between her love for an aspiring composer and the demands of an exacting, Diaghilev-style impresario. It is sure to end in tragedy, and this is prefigured in the dark fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen which inspired the 1948 film. The young ballerina in that story is punished for her unrelenting ambition by being carried away in a relentless dance by a pair of red shoes that cannot be taken off. This dark side is brought out in the ballet by some macabre scenes, where the young ballerina is tempted by a Mephistopheles-like figure brandishing those fateful red shoes.
In contrast with the darkness are sunny scenes on the French Riviera, and a particularly hilarious episode at a seedy East End music hall. There is a spoof Phaoronic duck walk by a pair of look-alikes for Abdul Abulbul Amir, while bored Tiller Girl types with enormous feather head-dresses smoke and read magazines. An example of the great pains that have been taken with every aspect of this production is the slightly sinister figure of a ventriloquist in the background, togged out like Peter Brough with his dummy, Archie Andrews. He just stays in the background, but his presence is unsettling.
Fidelity to the original film is coupled with much innovation in this production. The original score has been ditched in favour of a selection of music from other movies composed by Bernard Herrmann, an inspired choice. Apart from that, the production is a technical tour de force. Sound, lighting, sets and costume all play their part, and the show-within-a-show sequence, when the impresario’s ballet company perform before an audience, works brilliantly. But, of course, it is the dancing that most enthrals. Little wonder the audience too were on their feet!