It doesn’t take much to throw you off balance. One minute the protagonist of EV Crowe’s new play is walking around the city with two shoes, the next she’s hobbling, staggering, struggling, one shoe down, her life thrown out of joint.
Katherine Parkinson plays Viv, a woman who loses a shoe but stumbles on, her bare foot growing increasingly bloody as she tries to hold herself and her world together.
Even in her single-shoed state, she still has to go to work – there’s no possibility of stopping. So she shreds her sole as she shows young couples around smart apartments – she’s an estate agent, of course – while eyeing up their high heels. In becoming un-shoed, she becomes increasingly unglued.
Crowe’s play, with its sing-song quality, feels like a woozy nursery rhyme at times, a Beckettian word-stream at others. It shows how even relatively comfortable lives can be pressurised and precarious, something that is only compounded by parenthood; how even if you’re middle class, your life isn’t free from uncertainty and anxiety.
Shoe Lady captures the discombobulation of motherhood, the disorientation brought by lack of sleep, the ease with which modern urban life can overwhelm. Though it contains interjections from other characters, it is for the most part a monologue. Other people are pushed to the edges. Viv’s husband is near-silent; her colleague just a pair of feet under a toilet stall door; stage managers occasionally pop up from below to anoint her foot, to crimson it. But Viv is so caught up with trying to maintain her balance that it absorbs all her energy and focus.
Chloe Lamford’s set emphasises this narrowness of perspective. On either side there are two pits, reinforcing the sense of potential calamity, but also Viv’s blinkered predicament as she totters on a moving walkway, or tries to cram her red, seeping foot into a new shoe. (All the shoes are heeled, strappy, pretty, restrictive things).
Parkinson see-saws between distress and cheeriness. She is dogged in her plodding, maintaining a strained smile, conveying the release Viv derives from the breeze blowing through a toilet window.
Vicky Featherstone’s production brings splashes of magic to the play that might otherwise feel a bit tonally one-note. Viv is caressed by her curtains; there is a near-Brechtian musical sequence in which everyone sings about carousels. But in other ways the play feels less sure-footed. Some of the scenes featuring Kayla Meikle as a similarly one-shoed woman – a rough sleeper carting a bottle of cider around with her who is seemingly more at ease with her mono-shoed status – teeter close to the narrowness the play is ostensibly satirising.
Ironically in focusing so rigidly on the middle class, this is not a play that encourages its audience to walk in other people’s shoes.