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Tracey Neuls Shoe Boutique, London

Emily Hill
posted 1 October 2007

For Tanja Raaste, Quality has been a labour of love. Enchanted by the work of the little-known Canadian playwright Elaine Avila, Raaste was determined to bring it to a wider audience: ‘It is rare to find a writer that taps so lightly, yet so devastatingly accurately into the present moment –showing us where we are, who we are, and allowing us to have fun at the same time.’ Raaste explains, ‘I have known Roxanne and Pippa [the central characters of Quality] for almost six years and cannot wait to finally see them come alive here in Tracey Neul’s store’.

And come alive they do, at the play’s ‘European premiere’ in the shoe store on Marylebone Lane. The spectators are perched in corners and on shelves, and treated to paper bags full of beauty supplements, Woman’s Refuge leaflets and copies of Cosmo. The shop manages to be both elegant and rickety, with a black and white chequered floor and twelve pairs of custom made heels suspended from crocodile clips from the ceiling. Shoes are essential to the play – they are the engines that propel Avila’s lofty discussion of our changing patterns of consumption.

Roxanne (Melissa Thingelstad) is a shoe selling sophisticate, chief muse to the greatest shoe designer of the age, Tremendulo (Tracey Neul’s own range). She sells shoes and, through them, a lifestyle of quality. Pippa (Tracy Penner) is an over-excitable trainee, desperate to gain access to Roxanne’s privileged world and with an unrivalled passion for shoes. Under Roxanne’s supervision, Pippa’s matching of shoes to customers reaches something akin to divine inspiration. Seeing a pair of courts, her inner shoe demon beats out the tale of Jackie O, meeting Kruschev, her choice of shoes essential to international diplomacy. Selling a pair of killer heels, she becomes a gladiator, she fights to live, spreadeagling herself across the chequered floor, noting that her well-shod legs are now ‘the ladder to treasure’. A woman needs shoes that fulfil her desires, and the customer must be handled and directed with cunning.

Perks come with success, and Roxanne and Pippa both relish the master designer’s new shoe collection, orgiastic with shoe-boxes on the floor. But, at the height of her achievement, Pippa sees the chance to go further, to trounce Roxanne’s notion of exclusivity, her craven serving of rich witches, and appeal to the mass market. This, necessarily, diminishes the production of the shoes - but using her gift for spotting a shoe trend Pippa teams up with Tremendulo to sell heels by the bucket load to every woman on every street corner, from her ‘New Directions’ range, flogged from ‘P-Mart’ and ‘Wasda’. ‘Common shoes’, in the words of Roxanne, which will lead to ‘blisters, corns, wobbling’, which will be acidic pink, have trashy box names and will be made of ‘fake leather’. This is the very antithesis of quality. But quality, as it stands in Roxanne’s world, is by nature exclusive, defined by those who cannot afford it. Pippa, in capitalising on her success, loses her gift, her connection with shoes and her ability to match them with an individual. At the close, Pippa, a rich woman herself, returns, sold out and jaded, but rich and ready to be ‘comforted with shoes.’

I’ve had a few pairs of shoes myself, and wobbled about with blood red heels too high to stand in, and hobbled about with bleeding toes in gold sparkly ballet pumps too tight to walk in. But I can’t claim to have believed that shoes merited this amount of attention. Certainly, I haven’t ever rolled around with a shoe box making gibbon sex noises. But Quality manages to convince, and of course this play isn’t really about shoes, its about attitudes to the consumerist society, and so this first airing of Avila’s work seems to merit Raaste’s six year battle to bring it before us. Faults may exist in the production, Pippa’s performance may be a tad overblown, a tad hyper dramatic, and being perched on a shoe shelf for an hour and a half may be about as comfortable as running after a bus in kitten heels, but fuelled by the enthusiasm of its producer and the novelty of its location, Quality was well worth a visit to Tracy Neuls store, tucked up in Marylebone Lane. Certainly, the audience emerges with food for thought - if not an urge to fork out half their wages on the perfect pair of Laboutins.

Till 20 October 2007


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