THE SHOE LADY        LOCKDOWN THEATRE         JUNE 13th 2020


How fantastic! Thousands of people can still “go to the theatre” to enjoy The Shoe Lady! Katherine Parkinson won’t hear their response to her wonderful, powerfully emotional performance, but surely it’s a standing ovation, long and loud. Live stage performances of E.V.Crowe’s play may have been cut short at The Royal Court, but thanks to Bertie Carvel, The Shoe Lady is now one of the plays recorded in lockdown for Lockdown Theatre and transferred to radio. It works brilliantly. Like Parkinson’s character Viv, by the end, we emerge drained, bewildered and exhilarated all at the same time.

The piece is so well acted and produced that little is lost in not having the stage physically before us, upon which Parkinson’s despairing Viv tries so hard to negotiate the relentless conveyor-belt/travelator of life, a merry-go-round that’s far from merry. With the play largely in monologue the words have great impact even without added visual humour.

Estate agent, working mother Viv is trapped by the pressures and stresses of sink-or-swim modern life in a materialistic, consumerist society. All the time, she teeters on the brink of serious depression and breakdown in her efforts to keep up with expectations at work and at home, that are heaped on her by others, by society at large, and by herself. Filled with self-loathing, self-recrimination, frustration and despair one moment, she bobs back to rally the next, glimmers of hope and joy found in a glass of cool water, a cool breeze, in a calmer thought, or in the miraculous, sudden recovery of her lost, broken shoe.

Parkinson steers Viv’s thoughts and emotions, and ours, through their ups, downs and swings with tear-jerking brilliance. As with wacky Jen in The IT Crowd or Doc Martin’s receptionist Pauline, her performances are always compelling. Her distinctive voice is equally convincing on radio as she travels swiftly back and forth from moments of wheedling, wailing apology and confusion to stern self-reprimand, harsh, caustic anger or mean spite, or from gentler, fragile moments, some filled with weeping despair and upset as she feels she’s breaking in two, to brief moments of joy and relief.

Ostensibly this short play is about Viv losing a shoe, one of her only pair of shoes. How can she carry on through daily life with only one shoe? Should she go barefoot? Should she hobble on with bleeding feet? Should she steal or fight to get another pair of shoes she can’t afford to buy? Surely, if she had two shoes again her life would all come right. Of course, the shoes and the quest for the lost shoe are a metaphor, like the curtains at home that fall down at the start. But the metaphor extends way beyond the dilemmas of one particular middle-class working female to embrace the dilemmas of all humanity. For those who love the surreal Theatre of the Absurd this is great. Samuel Beckett springs to mind, especially in the short bursts of repeated phrases and the circular arguments that plague all our lives: What am I supposed to do? What to do? No time! No time! It hurts – but it’s alright! All is well! But this is far less sparse than Beckett.

Thought-provoking, philosophical questions rage beneath the surface as Viv’s lonely plight unfolds, her feet becoming bloodier and more swollen, her quest ever more complex. Problems, questions, impossible choices and decisions circle endlessly, overwhelming her as her life unravels. Can we hobble on through life without managing to conform to others’ expectations, or to our own? Are we letting everyone down if we don’t? What is the key to making everything right? Must we cope stoically with the pain of a life that just doesn’t fit, even when the pain of being judged different or insufficient becomes unbearable? If we have high expectations as we unwrap life only to find there’s nothing at all inside the wrapping paper, can we ever be happy with nothing?

Neatly, unobtrusively, scenes and locations are set and minor characters are drawn in to enlarge the picture. Depth is added by her husband’s useless mumblings, the remarks of cider-drinking, street-dwelling Elaine, and her encounters with invisible American tourists at the police station, while her child’s stage directions shift the narrative along, too.

Matthew Herbert’s super piano music beautifully enhances the bleak drama and reflects the turmoil of moods, emotions and events. A big, fabulously sung musical number comes along most unexpectedly, urging her/us to step off the madly accelerating carousel of life lest the epitaph read: worked hard, withered and died. I’ll sell my first born before I’ll under-perform, says the lyric. But what well-balanced society causes a mother to proclaim such a thing? In the end, in spite of the poor fit and the pain, like most, Viv hobbles on.

Actor Bertie Carvel’s Lockdown Theatre repackages several plays whose runs have been axed. This one is superb in every way, and the sound wizards have brought it all together with the best of their magic wands. It’s a thoroughly engaging, mesmerising, hour-long play, brilliantly delivered.

Eileen Caiger Gray

Other Lockdown Theatre Productions for Radio 3 and Radio 4 are Rockets and Blue Lights, The Mikvah Project and Love, Love, Love.