Somewhere out beyond the tiny village of Blackwater, a vast white domed tent has taken root in a field with wide vistas down the verdant spine of Cornwall. Moorlands, pastures and distant coastlines provide the rural backdrop to this new home of innovative performance company Kneehigh. As if to emphasise the off-centre style of its productions, it calls this “theatre” the Asylum.
Now thirty years young, it has moved into its new home with a season of three shows that provide a welcome alternative to the well-worn two-act fare so often placed before theatregoers. The opening offering, The Red Shoes (nothing to do with Norma Shearer) is almost undefinable. It is dance, a musical, a comedy, mime, drama and much more all rolled into one beautifully narrated and, at one stage, quite gory folk tale.
Five mute characters clad only in daggy underwear wander through the audience on the nicely tiered seats (and wrapped in welcome woollen blankets) before gathering on a tiny open stage to enact a tale of obsession and compulsion.
Over the next 90 minutes they clamber in and out of a motley collection of costumes carried in battered old suitcases to enact the story of the girl who sells her soul to the devil for the sake of a pair of red dancing shoes. She pays a terrible price for yielding to the shoes’ seductive power (consumer greed?) that means she can never stop dancing until … but I won’t spoil this gruesomely dramatic moment.
The actors play out the drama to a background of music ranging from grand opera through jazz, pop and musical comedy – some of it recorded but most of it played by an “orchestra” of two supported by their own occasional efforts. Their facial expressions are a joy, the dancing (again ranging across the genres) gets fast and furious, the visual jokes are frequent and clever, the dialogue minimal apart from the pungent verse commentary of wonderfully voiced Lady Lydia (Giles King).
In such a cleverly crafted ensemble work it might seem unjust to single out any one cast member, but the extraordinary performance of Patrycja Kujawska as the unfortunate girl has to be noted.
This rich multi-layered allegory goes deep into the dark side of the human condition (religion certainly gets a good bashing) and is far more than the simple fairy tale it might at first appear. A visit to the Asylum, as night slowly descends through the open flap beyond the stage, is a refreshingly different theatrical experience.