FringeReview UK 2020
Directed by Vicky Featherstone, designed by Chloe Lamford, lit by Natasha Chivers and composition by Matthew Herbert with Sound Design by Tony Gale. Movement Director’s Sasha Millavic Davies. Associate Lighting Designer’s Simisola Lucia Majekodunmi, Puppetry Consultant is Mervyn Millar. Costume Supervisor’s Katie Price.
There’s that childhood fear of treading on pavement cracks: an existential black hole swallows you. Or a bear pops up. What happens if you lose your shoe? From your only pair of shoes? E. V. Crowe’s Shoe Lady is shoeless in London amidst a mill of slaves.
As The Sewing Group proved in 2016, Crowe’s fascinated by role-plays we set up, machines for partly living, how they break apart. In that play, a period-retro of peace countered the venturi-blast of corporate living. In Shoe Lady, it’s the madness we live that Katherine Parkinson’s Viv breaks down in, unable to play the unconsciously-constructed role for herself as estate agent, mother, wife.
After her own stunningly-portrayed retro-role of 1950s housewife in Laura Wade’s 2018 Home, I’m Darling Parkinson seems (sorry!) an ideal fit for Crowe’s more provisional reality. After jumping off for the day, husband Kenny and child sorted, Viv marches towards us – there’s a conveyer belt – and finds she’s lost her shoe. The skin of her life begins to rub off.
Parkinson’s would-be-bright alienated worker bears the obligatory meet-and-greet smile we’re now burdened with. Parkinson’s more quietly terrifying in this rictus grin for making it so familiar in so many jobs.
You can’t help feeling this started as a solo performance; a surreality not quite at one with the core rationale – literally with leaves it seems – grafted on. Nevertheless three actors break the internal dynamics of Viv’s monologue in a way that stops it self-communing.
So on the way Viv meets Kayla Meikle’s homeless one-shoe Elaine, who acts as a moral lodestar. The worse for her when Viv returns and in sheer desperation struggles with Elaine. But Elaine’s chiding Viv for a despicable act by then.
That’s all after Viv arrives with a bloodied foot (solemnly applied by a stage manager), just managing her first day as her hinge on work slowly swings open like a child playing on a five-bar gate. She’ll fall off.
Meikle doubles as a colleague in the office toilet whose legs we see. Crowe’s skill presenting brief colloquies in toilets as the sad confessional – and temptation to snaffle more footwear – spells out Crowe’s flipped world is here already.
Crowe’s unravelling absurdisms spiral, a credit-limit meaning it’s absurd to try replacing your one shoe with a pair from Russell and Bromley. Or encountering moral opprobrium and tussle with a homeless woman who’d befriended you. Or finally be tracked by police who accept you’ve not quite realised. Or present a birthday-present of Timon-like teasing to your child. Or limping off for a second day, with a strange ravelling-back.
Directed by Vicky Featherstone, Chloe Lamford’s set is deceptive. With two access stairs to cellarage below the stage, descending from an attic to the underworld, Viv’s bed then conveyer seem stranded above ground. Suggestions of office-loos finally give way to something strange upstage. And speech more curious still. There’s descents from the flies too: for instance a large sprig.
It’s where lighting by Natasha Chivers comes into its own, after hopeless dawns, garish interiors. The attractively troubled piano composition by Matthew Herbert is banged out a little too loudly in Tony Gale’s sound design where elsewhere his envelope works at the right pitch. Movement direction by Sasha Millavic Davies allows everything to pass as dreamlike and slow-motion unravel.
Tom Kanji as Kenny, Archer Brandon as the child…. and a tree give support that seems – like Meikle’s Elaine – a word of mute reproach. They hardly speak. When they do they touch the oracular.
Crowe’s one of the UK’s most stimulating dramatists – with gripping off-kilter narratives we need to see. It’s how they end that can frustrate. Here a late decision to invert two scenes really works, and with Parkinson’s tragic trudge you get something of both her and Crowe at full throttle.
Yet Shoe Lady’s a teasing work if clearly signalling worker alienation, how we’ve become hallucinated automata; how in particular women are expected to model roles seamlessly, far more than men. Only when the bloodied foot doesn’t fit the shoe might we wake; if we do. Talking of alienation, it’s Maynard Keynes not Marx Crowe references as an introductory quote: a letter to Bernard Shaw disparaging Marx’s Ricardian basis just before he published his own General Theory! Didn’t see that coming. It’s oblique to the play. Keynes’ Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren however really did suggest a world of leisure, more clearly states Crowe’s intent. But we get it.
It’s finally though Parkinson’s and Viv’s play. Parkinson inhabits that breaking through the office crust asphyxiating us; her Viv has life twisted into her and beaten out. As with much Crowe, it’s one part maddening three parts essential. That’s before Parkinson, who scorches the Viv in us in sixty-five minutes.