Shoes to Fill is an hour-long tour de force, written and performed by Tanya Bridgeman and directed by Alex Miller. The play discusses her mixed heritage, having grandmothers from Barbados and Ireland. Their words ring in her ears as she navigates her life as a young woman living in London, struggling with her mental health and self-belief.
Feeling a little sorry for myself sitting outside in the cold in the garden of St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, I immediately feel a warmth radiating from Bridgeman as she marches on ‘stage’ — this is a tree stump in the middle of the space. She is set a difficult task, performing outside on a traverse stage, also moving into the audience. However, with the best lighting and sound that I have seen in an outdoor piece, there is still the same immediacy that comes with a traditional theatre space. Charlotte Dennis must be applauded for achieving this as designer, creating an intriguing and resourceful set. On top of this, Bridgeman takes full advantage of the outside setting, acknowledging and speaking in tandem with a ringing church bell and getting her hands dirty in the muddy grass. At first I am afraid that staging the play outside is a little gratuitous, but by its conclusion it makes total sense and I am grateful to experience the narrative in this specific setting.
Bridgeman’s character continuously picks up phone calls from her grandmothers or replays their words in her head, embodying them as she remembers stories they have told her. Cleverly, elements from each of their stories directly influence her next course of action. Although one grew up in Barbados and the other in Ireland, they have a shared experience of being from poor families who came to England to escape the paths their families assumed they would take. With a bit of steel pan music or traditional Irish singing, we are instantly transported to each place and Bridgeman is the confident tour guide. She is a defiantly engaging and unafraid performer, speaking to the audience directly with real charm.
The writing sustains a clear narrative, taking us on a defined journey both in the character’s daily movements and through her musings about her grandmothers. It’s incredibly difficult to do this but the writing pulls it off easily. It constantly treads the line of spoken word with half-rhymes and momentum, but I like when it doesn’t stick rigidly to the confines of poetry. Rhyming ‘ice cream’ and ‘I scream’ is a little tired and worries me at the start, but really the writing is very original. The play seems influenced by Cush Jumbo’s Josephine and I, following a woman on the brink of despair, suddenly getting a break into her dream career. Shoes to Fill is an even more current and personal tale, dealing deftly with mental health. Simply put, Bridgeman explains, ‘What I do is wear shoes to keep myself in place’. With the motif of shoes, Bridgeman really effectively creates a focused exploration of two huge themes: mixed-race identity and mental health.
At the end of the play, she pitches its concept to a panel of BBC producers, hoping it will be turned into a TV series. I only hope that this manifests into a real opportunity for Bridgeman. The play is certainly a persuasive pitch for the importance of telling the stories of elders who have paved the way for mixed-heritage people in this country.
Shoes to Fill is playing Iris Theatre, St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden until 10th July. For more information and tickets, see Iris Theatre’s website.