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Review: Matthew Bourne's The Red Shoes at Liverpool Empire *****

Outside in Lime Street, the façade of St George’s Hall was glowing red.

Simply an illuminating coincidence, or did they know Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes was celebrating the 100th performance of its current tour with an opening night at the Empire?

Bourne’s stage version of Powell and Pressburger’s landmark 1948 film - and, like it, also influenced by Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairytale - is on its second visit to the theatre after a successful run during its inaugural tour three years ago.

And the storytelling remains as vivid and enchanting as ever.

Victoria Page is the talented ingenue plucked from the chorus of Boris Lermontov’s dance company to play the lead in The Red Shoes – a ballet within the ballet where the titular footwear (the second most famous killer red shoes in cinema) lead their owner on a demonic dance of death.

But can Vicky balance the demands of love, in the form of Dominic North’s struggling composer Julian Craster, and of star-making success on stage? Or will the attempt be as destructive as those rouge shoes?

Ashley Shaw returns to the role she originally created, delivering a captivating performance as the rising star torn between her boyfriend and her career, floating through the sinuous choreography with delicately expressive arms and beautiful elongated lines.

She has several lovely pas de deux – with North’s lovestruck Julian and Reece Causton’s domineering dance Svengali Lermontov among them.

The Red Shoes. Top: Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page. Photos by Johan Persson

Lez Brotherston’s revolving proscenium arch set allows the action to switch seamlessly from performance to backstage and back, blurring the lines between fiction and reality.

He and Bourne – and long-time collaborator Etta Murfitt – provide an endlessly pleasing series of visual tableaux including the Ballon de Plage, its stripy bathers and beachballs a witty nod in the direction of the company’s Early Adventures, and the Red Shoes ballet which finishes the first half in a riot of striking monochrome and stylish silhouettes moving to Bernard Herrmann’s spare, Stravinsky-meets-Copeland-meets-Bernstein scoring.

As always, the devil – and delight – is in the detail and Bourne populates his choreography with clever morsels and vignettes without detracting from the central performances.

The backstage scenes are joyfully entertaining, full of the energy of the rehearsal room underscored with hints of accompanying bitchiness, rows and flirtations – the latter of which spill out into the public arena under the hot Riviera sunshine.

There’s also an amusing, tempered with troubling, interlude in the East End music hall where Shaw’s Victoria finds herself after leaving Lermontov’s company, performing alongside a handy ventriloquist’s dummy and an Egyptian Sand Dance as delivered by the hapless airmen from Allo Allo.

And alongside the principals, there are also some choice performances from the more peripheral performers including Liam Mower as the lithe and louche premier danseur Ivan Boleslawsky, and Glenn Graham as Lermontov’s exacting ballet master.

It’s 10 years now since Bourne brought his first New Adventures production (his seminal Swan Lake) to the Empire and long may the partnership continue.

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