Viv (Katherine Parkinson) has lost her shoe on her London commute. She has 50% of the shoes she needs to be considered a capable member of society. And so begins E. V. Crowe’s unflinching, unsettling, and insightful assessment of the precarious middle class.
Parkinson’s performance is a tightrope walk between over-exuberance and total collapse.
Without a shoe, Viv is marked. Her interactions with strangers, police officers, and her own colleagues become transactional exchanges in which she is the one always having to trade upwards. Featherstone’s direction monopolises on this dynamic; Viv’s position is unsustainable and the generosity of her fellow Londoners is limited to say the least. Crowe’s script is loaded with onomatopoeias and outbursts – she captures the sounds of London, how it moves and the ease with which it isolates and then discards its vulnerable.
Parkinson’s performance is a tightrope walk between over-exuberance and total collapse. She commands the stage with a kind of gilded refusal to see the monsters right in front of her. She hits Crowe’s coiled script with a perseverance and ability that fills the play with momentum and doom. Viv’s naked foot becomes wounded as the play progresses, allowing for grim moments of body horror. Parkinson carries these moments with a huge and disconcerting smile, twinning the atmospherics of professional success with costly self-disfigurement.
Chloe Lamford’s set design frames the harshness of Viv’s situation. Lamford’s stage is a deep, dark space with recurring elements (a tree, a set of curtains), which we see in regular rotation. The gloom of the isolated underworld is ever-present. Viv's bedroom is a painfully stifling space of greyscales and threat. Her son's birthday party, which should be a moment of celebration, is a moment of empty and forced happiness. The collapse of this structure is just one missed paycheck or redundancy (or shoe) away. Prop use is minimal and nothing is hidden gracefully, everything feels transparent. We can look through Viv’s entire life.
Featherstone’s direction ensures that there is a sensitive tether reminding us that precariousness within the middle class is not a joke. It is possible to shop in Waitrose twice a day and still be on the edge of things. Viv’s character arc is a tragic fall, full of threat and vicious cycles of self-doubt. Occasionally, Crowe’s script hammers its own conceit too hard. References to the eponymous shoe and how it has disrupted Viv’s universe can feel overbearing. A slightly too-comfortable musical number towards the end doesn’t fully reflect the complexities of economic darkness and doubt that characterises Shoe Lady, and as such feels like a disconnect.
Shoe Lady is a swansong to a middle-class that does not feel sustainable. It knits a fragmented and image-laden script with body horror, to provide what feels like a modern Aesop’s fable – of what might just happen to you, if you also lose your shoe.