★★ Woman On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

Simon Ward reviews Shoe Lady at the Royal Court Theatre

There were high hopes for this – playwright E V Crowe‘s short career has been much lauded, and Katherine Parkinson has recently triumphed at the National in Home I’m Darling.

Photo credit Manuel Harlan

All the resources of the Royal Court are in evidence – lighting (designed by Natasha Chivers), music (composed by Matthew Herbert) and set design (by Chloe Lamford) are uniformly excellent. The set literally contains hidden depths and the lighting is frequently used to great effect to envelop, or crush, the audience. And one can hardly fail to be sympathetic to the story of a woman, Viv, pushed close to, or over, the edge by the never ending demands of family, home, husband, work, redundancy, lack of money.

And yet, and yet. This feels like an opportunity missed. The tone and structure veers wildly between light comedy, even pantomime and a kind of Kafkaesque horror of relentlessness, with an expressionistic song and dance sequence thrown in for good measure. I think this is supposed to represent Viv’s state of mind, but it makes for an alienating and uninvolving show.

Photo credit Manuel Harlan

Katherine Parkinson brings immense energy and commitment to a hugely demanding role, and there is much to admire here. The contrast between her sense of who she is and what she represents starts to unravel as her physical surroundings break down, starting with the curtains. But sadly it feels like the insights gleaned fail to rise above the level of cliché. We have seen the useless husband who fails to pull his weight often before and we don’t see anything new here. The observation that a woman needs a wife has been made, and is not really developed here.

In spite of family and work, Viv seems to be trying to survive essentially alone. In fact, as a piece it feels like a one woman monologue which has been expanded, and not necessarily to advantage. None of the supporting structure of life – friends and family – seem to be there for her in any useful way.

There are some intriguing ideas. The loss of the shoe, when it happens, compounds Viv’s loss of sense of self. But when she encounters a homeless person, also without a shoe, it quickly becomes apparent that she does not fit in here either – simply losing a shoe is not enough. Yet she retains sufficient ‘middle-classness’ to have a certain attitude with the police, even when accused of shoplifting.

But there are also some frankly baffling parts. It was not clear, for example, why we were treated to Viv’s child reading a poem about trees, albeit a rather convincing version of a child’s writing. I was not sure either of the significance of the boiler-suited attendants. The symbolism of trees and leaves left me cold – again, can this simply be the passing of time?

There is a Beckettian climax where Viv finally finds her missing shoe and resumes her relentless forward march. But her foot is so damaged from walking barefoot that it hurts. ‘It hurts. It hurts. It hurts. It’s alright that it hurts.’ I wish that this had hit home as it should have.

Shoe Lady runs at The Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Sloane Square, until Saturday 21st March.

Categories: review

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