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24 February 2011

Richard Thomas’s mastery of the mock-heroic

The librettist finds a kind of poetry in footwear.

By Gina Allum

“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).

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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.