Richard Thomas's mastery of the mock-heroic

The librettist finds a kind of poetry in footwear.

"You can never have enough hats, bags and shoes" according to Ab Fab's Patsy, and recently Hilary Clinton has seemed inclined to agree, with her comments on handbags as some sort of lingua franca amongst women (heaven forefend that we should have anything more important to discuss).

Richard Thomas is no stranger to controversy, having written the peerless - and deeply divisive - Jerry Springer: the Opera. (And see Alexandra Coghlan's review of his return to scabrous form, Anna Nicole). When the BBC screened Jerry Springer in 2005 it received a record 50,000 complaints, and right-thinking Christian evangelists played merry havoc with the national tour. With his new song and dance show, Shoes- The Musical, which just opened at Sadler's Wells, it's almost as though, having had his fingers so scorched by the experience, Thomas looked through the librettist's list of deeply uncontroversial topics, and hey presto, got it, shoes.

"Shoes have become a female obsession," twitter the programme notes. Really? I, for one, am shoe-blind, a Manolo Refusenik, a Vivienne West-wouldn't, and always thought they were made by a load of old cobblers trying to part you from your cash. So I wasn't exactly the most rapture-ready of Sadler's Wells punters, some of whom had clearly worn their extra special shoes for the occasion.

Act one didn't give a determined old shoe-sceptic too much cause to change their mind. The choreography by Stephen Mears and his team is vivacious and witty, and we quickly establish that their highly versatile dancers can dance in any footwear: even flippers. And yes, we also got it that shoes are performative: they make you move in different ways. But it did feel like an overplayed parade of brands - Uggs, Crocs, Hush Puppies, Birkenstocks (worn by the Nazarene, natch).

I'm a big fan of Thomas's deliberate collisions - or car-crashes, depending on your point of view - of high and low art: he mashed the sacred and the profane to great effect in Jerry Springer, with its incantatory, aria-singing "crack whores", and its blend of things eschatological with things scatological (Jesus in a nappy). But when bathos is the only trick it starts to wear a little threadbare (more pathetic than bathetic). It's not, apparently, enough to name shoes to make a song-and-dance hilarious. Or so I thought, until about half way through the show when the fortuitous sounds of Italian designer names are twisted into a piece of hymnal music: Miuccia Prada, Oscar de la Renta, and, even better, in a later number, "Salva, salva, salva-tore Ferragamo!"

But generally the whole of the second act seemed to move with more swagger once the knowing name-check had been bounced into something altogether more anarchic, in which footwear is the start, but not the end of the proceedings. We are shown a pregnant, pram-face Cinderella, a few years after the business with the slipper, her Prince Charming having long since become a Prince Char-minger, and a great cameo of Imelda Marcos, who makes like Eva Peron in front of the microphones. Here the choreographers quote the gestures of Evita as she raises her arms in benediction to the masses, explaining the ziggurat of shoes found in the presidential palace with "I did it for tourism!" ("She did it for tourism!")
Thomas has a knack of making demotic language into either light opera or liturgical refrains, so when one character threatens to "put a toilet on your grave" it is taken up like a choral antiphon. Just as the music, from Jonathan Williams and his nifty band, rips about from musical theatre to Bartok, so the dance direction, in the same spirit of hybrid vigour, quotes an alphabet soup of dance styles, from ballroom to hip hop. There's exuberant looting from latin, tap, folk, contemporary and even the silent movies.

My very favourite skit is about the handing of down of wedding shoes. The dancers pose for the happy family album in a huge pewter photo-frame, designed to snap and freeze the moment for posterity. But it gets repeatedly rotated and tumbled round as successive generations trip up, cock up, come out of the closet and fall out, all the while to ripe operatic accompaniment from sassy contralto Gemma O'Duffy.

Thomas is perhaps a natural heir to Alexander Pope as arch exponent of the mock-heroic: the grand form subverted by its subject matter. It seems that when he puts his banal cordwainers to one side - and eschews the Jimmy Choos - he hits on endemic frailties that are really worth making a song and dance about.

Show Hide image

If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood