Last week was my first time at Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), a grand old town hall that houses a wealth of arts programmes and performances. I’ve often heard of exciting projects going on there and am glad to have finally visited. Currently they are showing the macabre and menacing ‘The Red Shoes’.
BAC is a short bus ride from Clapham Common tube station and is South London’s biggest hope as an independent theatre venue. The interior has a certain exhilarating grandeur and with a busy bar and restaurant area there is a real buzz about this place. On entering I immediately felt compelled to explore my surroundings.
The Red Shoes is brought to us by quirky and innovative theatre group Kneehigh who originally had success with their production of this play ten years back. Essentially it is a folktale conjuring up a strange world with dark secrets, a story that Kneehigh hope will “resonate with all times, places and people”. I watched wide-eyed, confused and enthralled by what I saw. This piece is certainly completely nonsensical, never has there been such an appropriate use of the word, but this perhaps gives it its appeal.
The cast are a motley crew, in a uniform of plain white men’s underwear, and with shaved heads, they don’t even have hair to characterise them. Before the show they wander amongst the crowded foyer playing their instruments in a melancholic fashion. Their eyes are circled with dark make up, their numb expressions are creepily dehumanised.
Patrycja Kujawska is strikingly scary as the play’s main girl. She is mute throughout but speaks volumes with her glaring eyes and spooky smirk. She dons hard clunky red clogs that although feminine, look extremely heavy and cumbersome. The Girl is obsessed with and eventually possessed by these shoes; they force her to dance continually and relentlessly, and dance she does with endless energy and demonic animation.
Two musicians sit either side of the stage, they too wear the underwear outfit. Stu Barker and Ian Ross play a huge variety of instruments and give the show character and spirited ambience. The music tells the story just as much as the script, the haunting folk melody that frequently returns is beautiful and very similar to the band Beirut’s lilting tunes.
Of the four male actors (who make up the rest of the cast) I was entranced by Giles King as Lady Lydia, the eccentric cross dressing compere. Oddly sexy and mischievous she/he reminded me of Tim Burton’s Willy Wonka. The stage is small but fully adaptable - Lady Lydia stands above on a balcony for much of the play, she manipulates her company to re-enact her dreadful story, and armed with a long fishing line is a cruel puppeteer.
The Red Shoes is a truly dark but magical show, how a derelict building can be transformed and hold such an atmosphere will amaze audiences every night.
If you can’t make it to this show, Kneehigh’s West End production ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ is in full swing on Shaftesbury Avenue.
Continues until 9 April, book here.