It starts with the curtains. Already precarious on their runner, this is the morning they fall down when Viv draws them back to start the day. Viv worries how the demise of her curtains will reflect upon her: ‘A mess. / A chaotic. / Not fit for work. / Not fit to be a mother’. She becomes ‘lopsided’ herself when she loses a shoe on her way to work – her only pair. An odyssey in miniature follows as Viv attempts to soldier on with only one shoe as her life spirals out of control, encountering a similarly shoeless woman who is homeless, disappointing her boss at the estate agents, and learning that her husband has been made redundant. If neoliberal capitalism makes life a treadmill (the central metaphor of Chloe Lamford’s set), then Viv’s conveyor belt is sped up a couple of notches, so that maintaining the appearance of walking at an effortless pace requires an uncomfortably sweaty jog.
On Twitter, Ava Wong Davies insightfully observed that E.V. Crowe’s new play Shoe Lady ‘is like a refracted + exaggerated version’ of Collapsible by Margaret Perry. Shoe Lady attempts to invoke a similar state of feeling to Collapsible – the feeling of teetering on the brink of a calamity that is both deeply personal and has systemic roots. In Thomas Martin’s production of Collapsible, this sense is brilliantly conveyed by the high column on which Essie perches. While Essie in Collapsible imagines herself to be a ‘folding chair’, in Crowe’s play the curtains talk to Viv, berating her for considering stealing a client’s shoes. Yet, apart from a talking tree, this stylistic choice of animating inanimate objects is not sustained, leaving me unclear about the rules of the play world.
Shoe Lady is not quite a monologue and it sometimes feels uneasy in its form. Although other characters do interact with Viv, their speech is rarely allowed to penetrate Viv’s consciousness, which makes Viv seem self-absorbed. Her encounters with the other shoeless woman Elaine (Kayla Meikle) are uncomfortable and cryptic. Viv feels no solidarity with Elaine, regarding her as a cautionary tale of someone who has sunk to the bottom, yet Elaine makes it clear that she does not envy Viv’s life or her high-heeled shoe. Elaine tells Viv a story of unwrapping nothing and Elaine then presents her child with a birthday gift that is nothing, wrapped up. Yet it is not clear what function these encounters are meant to serve in the play; if Elaine is meant to offer an alternative model of someone who has had to get used to living with nothing, it does not seem like an attractive option. There is also a distancing quality to the style of Crowe’s writing in Shoe Lady that makes it hard to identify with Viv as a character. At times she seems a satire, declaring, ‘It takes real fortitude to be in essence and spirit middle class in this town’. Yet the slightly apologetic awareness that many people have it worse, both by the character and in the script, means that Viv is not allowed to show the depth of her pain.
As Viv, Katherine Parkinson toes the line wonderfully between comedy and despair. Her performance has the slightly manic brightness of a children’s TV presenter staving off chaos. ‘Don’t be a silly billy’, Viv tells herself, as her thoughts start to spiral. Vicky Featherstone’s production brings out the sing-song, nursery rhyme quality to the script, with its repetitions and unexpected rhymes (‘I’ve lost a shoe. // I don’t know what to do’). A jaunty, minor piano refrain composed by Matthew Herbert, menacing in its seeming innocuousness, plays between scenes. At the climax of the production, it blossoms into a song. The three adult actors march in line on the treadmill. ‘Step off the carousel, let it all go to hell’, they chorus, performing a dance routine. Viv sings, ‘I’d sell my first born, before I’d under-perform’, reminding me of the parody of corporate culture at the end of The Sewing Group. The song, not in the published script, sharpens the satire, emphasising how Viv desperately clings on to her identity as a ‘worker’ even when the ‘cruel optimism’ of capitalism has become apparent. Stage-hands appear in yellow boiler suits and headsets to daub Viv’s bare foot with fake blood, effectively highlighting that theatre too is work and embroiled in the capitalist economy.
Chloe Lamford’s design is a revelation, narrowing the space of the Royal Court mainstage to convey Viv’s blinkered perspective. The costumes – particularly the bright orange pair of shoes, worn by Viv’s boss, that peek out under the toilet cubicle door – provide cartoonish pops of colour against the dark flats. At the beginning of the play, the curtains are raised up into the flies – impossibly high for the assumed proportions of Viv’s bedroom. Lamford’s design, combined with Crowe’s wilful flouting of ideas around what constitutes sufficiently dramatic ‘stakes’ for a play, make me think about scale. To Viv, the seemingly trivial instance of losing a shoe precipitates calamity, like a footwear butterfly effect. Yet other things are passed over. A miscarriage is invoked then slips away almost without notice. ‘I shall park this’, Viv says ‘And / Come back to it. / And the admin of it’. When I watched the play, the line did not make much impression. Yet on revisiting the script, the unacknowledged pathos of that moment has lodged in my brain. While Shoe Lady might seem frustratingly narrow in its scope at times, it deftly captures the perverse selection of priorities deemed necessary to keep on being a ‘productive’ member of society.
Shoe Lady is on at the Royal Court till 21st March. More info here.