The one-hour play format has really come into its own in the last few weeks with several of the larger theatres staging meaningful One Act pieces and taking the lead from fringe theatre and festivals where shorter works are often programmed back-to-back to appeal to two or even three different audiences in one night. In some ways this is a natural reaction against a period of extra-long plays extending to at least if not beyond three hours, but the chance to be home by 9pm is a welcome one even if this spate of short plays doesn’t last long. The revival of two Carol Churchill plays is largely responsible with artistic integrity prized above interval bar sales with Far Away at the Donmar Warehouse and A Number at the Bridge Theatre playing solo, both so packed full of atmosphere and meaning that a second work would only detract from the power of their commentary on how the domestic and social is affected by science and politics.
Now, Graduate of the Young Writer’s programme, E.V. Crowe presents her new 65-minute play Shoe Lady at the Royal Court, which opens to the Press this evening, and takes an equally impactful look at the pressures of modern living. The central concept, that of a character with one one shoe forced to live with the indignities and physical challenges that it presents, is on the surface a silly one and the audience might expect plenty of slapstick encounters or Sex and the City posturing as the heroine Viv hobbles through this one day.
But Crowe uses this seemingly trivial scenario to more closely examine the ways in which we internalise and respond to societal expectations while judging those who fail to meet these prescribed standards – something as minor as a lost shoe becomes a symbol of Viv’s increasing ostracization and rapid descent into social dejection. The role of women as workers, wives and mothers is central, so to maintain status, lives, homes and families along with set notions of normalcy into which we painfully force ourselves, we all try to fit in, play the game and stay afloat. Crowe’s work is particularly interested in how the “merry-go-round” of commercial city living along with the “have-it-all mentality” this engenders affects female mental health which Shoe Lady charts in Viv’s declining stability as life and health unravel.
The compression of time in this play means Viv’s story acts as a symbolic or representative experience taking place across a single day in which the central character changes from reasonable optimism at the brightness of the morning to disorientation, devaluation and despair at its close. Director Vicky Featherstone’s approach adds layers to the concept with nods to seasonal changes as well, the charming spring morning turning to the searing and uncomfortable heat of summer that burns the exposed sole of Viv’s foot on the tarmac before autumnal leaves blow at her as she flees from a rash and pressured act, leading to an engulfing darkness as the consequences of her shoeless state are felt.
There is also a focus on the uneven balance of the trivial and more vital functions of life, with Viv frequently distracted by small homely concerns that put her wider purpose at risk. The flow of Viv’s mind between these different degrees of concern is one of Crowe’s most notable achievements here, and as the character prioritises fixing her bedroom curtain over taking her son to school and getting to work on time, or is distracted by a hidden and unnoticed smear on the window of a house she is showing to a potential buyer, Crowe reflects on the multitudinous expectations of perfection that Viv experiences, where the ideal home or outfit is given as much precedence in our overly-stylised instagrammable society as the basic functions of providing food and shelter.
Shoe Lady packs a lot of themes into its 65-minute run time, held together by the semi-absurdist style that Crowe has adopted in which her monologuing female lead talks to the audience, herself and occasionally to other characters in a scattering of dramatically constructed conversations. In staging the show, Crowe and Featherstone draw their influence not from the contained almost apocalyptic worlds of Beckett or Ionesco but from the dreamlike illusion of 1960s French cinema but mixed with the noirish splintered imaginings created by Salvador Dali for 1940s films like Hitchcock’s Spellbound. This heightened but vaguely nightmarish state is well maintained throughout the show as the tone darkens and the consequences of Viv’s lost shoe take on a terrible momentum of their own.
Chloe Lamford’s exciting design is simultaneously simple yet complex, a plain narrowing black box that creates a funnel shape with no exits to left or right, with only a square rear window at the back which references both those tense Hitchcock screen designs as well as the inescapable nature of this scenario for the lead character. Drawing more on this metaphor, Lamford creates further height within the stage with two descending staircases for Viv and her family to access the downstairs rooms of her house. Initially covered by a bed, the centre has a thin treadmill with clear allusions to the relentlessness of the society that Crowe depicts as well as creating opportunities for Featherstone to incorporate movement, travel and emotional emphasis within the rhythm of the play.
Katherine Parkinson’s recent stage work has focused on the challenges for modern women expected to publicly deliver an idealised concept of themselves and their lifestyle. Her last major West End role in Laura Wade’s superb Home I’m Darling as a wife wanting to live-out an idea of 1950s domestic perfection and vintage ease was a fascinating study in the dangers of nostalgia and our misplaced concept of historical reality that fractured beautifully in Parkinson’s fragile and nuanced performance. Parkinson has such an ability to tread the line between comedy and emotion which she uses here to great effect, drawing out the inner sadness and anguish that Viv experiences but maintaining the lightness of the play’s frame.
Here as the titular Shoe Lady there are similar ideas about the pressures placed on women especially to look, behave and even think a certain way. Crowe’s character is shown to be immediately afflicted by various contradictory worries but to the outside world as long as she looks presentable and normal in two shoes and can physically put one foot in front of the other, Viv’s interior struggles are irrelevant. Using that idea as the baseline of the play, we infer much of this from the writing and Parkinson’s performance, with Crowe starting from the point at which that changes. What we see, then, in Parkinson’s fascinating performance is a constant battle between wanting to maintain a semblance of normality, of adherence to social expectation while struggling to cope with the physical demands of her shoeless state.
So, while Viv proceeds with her day wearing only one shoe, makes it to work and continues to engage with her family, two intertwined things are happening to her; first her balance is physically and emotionally disrupted by the absent shoe, making her hobble but also slowly fracturing her sense of self and completeness with the missing part of her increasingly dominating her thoughts and actions. Parkinson is particular good at creating the confusion of Viv’s mind, the ways in which her thoughts splutter and disconnect, mindful only of the missing shoe – which itself represents another kind of internal balance that the treadmill of work and family expectation is disrupting or at least muting.
Second, is the bodily effect of Viv’s bare foot that becomes bloodied, painful and inflamed as she walks the city streets without any protection from the grit and damage of her journey. Parkinson often holds that leg out, drawing attention to its damaged state and incorporating greater physical distress into the performance as the impact of her day takes its toll on vulnerable flesh and bone. There is a sense of how easily we can suffer, how random acts and decisions, even the loss of a single shoe, can cause someone’s life to unravel fairly quickly and the audience is given an insight into the economic consequences for this small family.
Crowe uses secondary characters sparingly and allows them very little dialogue. Tom Kanji is Viv’s husband Kenny who remains mute for most of the time he is on stage, a presence in the same bed who attends to their child but rarely voices his own feelings or concerns to his wife. We learn that Kenny is also facing potential problems at work with redundancy looming but Viv quickly becomes absorbed by her own day, creating an interesting effect that Kanji manages well to create a character who is present but somehow colourless.
There is a similar challenge for the younger actors with Archer Brandon at this performance as Viv and Kenny’s child (he will be alternating the role with Beatrice White) and has a key birthday scene in which Viv tries to teach him an important life lesson without considering the impact of her behaviour. Her final interaction is with Elaine played by Kayla Meikle as a fellow shoeless woman fallen on hard times that Viv meets in the park and represents how far Viv has to fall. This also offers the play’s most comic scenes as the pair awkwardly tussle over footwear and their relative superiority.
Some of Shoe Lady’s production decisions are a little curious, including the regular appearance of stagehands to deliver props and dab further gory mixtures onto Parkinson’s exposed foot. And while the purpose is to jolt the audience back to reality, drawing attention to the unreality of the scenario created while practically managing the changing scenes creates a jarring effect, intruding on the carefully constructed composition of Lamford’s staging. The talking curtains in the house sale scene are also a weird addition that doesn’t develop into anything more significant later in the story, and is left hanging in every sense.
Matthew Herbert’s piano composition adds to the increasing drama, creating tension and anxiety that integrates really effectively with Lamford’s multipurpose design and the overall tone of nonsensical unease that Featherstone and Crowe create. With a very short run of only three week at the Royal Court, Shoe Lady may only be an hour but this is an intriguing and well-considered examination of the social and domestic pressures placed on women to perform multiple and often contradictory roles in our society.