INTERVIEW BY ROB BROWN

As Kinky Boots the musical opens up shop in London's West End, let’s take a look at the real-life footwear behind the musical that was produced by Northampton shoe factory WJ Brooks.

When Steve Pateman inherited his father’s shoe factory in 1993, a lot of similar factories closed, as the goods could be imported more cheaply, and Pateman was forced to make redundancies.

However, fate was to change thanks to ‘a random phone call from a woman from a fetish shoe shop in Folkstone, who asked Steve if he could supply her with ladies' shoes in men's sizes. The niche market of erotic footwear in men's sizes suddenly opened up’.

Although the factory may no longer be churning out the boots, Steve’s name may have changed to Charlie and the factory’s name to Price and Son; the lives of the families that worked in and around the factory in Northampton form an integral part of the 2005 film Kinky Boots and its subsequent musical.

Tying the community together

The musical focuses on the story of Charlie Price, the son of a shoe factory owner who inherits his father’s failing factory when he happens upon drag queen Lola during a visit to London. He notices that the heels of the boots she is wearing are easily damaged because they have not been reinforced to support a man’s weight.

However, it is Lauren (a lady who has known Charlie all her life) who motivates him to turn his factory from making a range of shoes for men to making shoes for a range of men.

The sight of a community coming together to fight hardship is very uplifting and the musical’s director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell recognised the importance of that community spirit when he invited the staff that work at the Northampton shoe factory where the film was made (R. E. Tricker Ltd) ‘to come and see the show when we took the cast […] for the very first day of rehearsal to tour the factory’.

Although the R. E. Tricker factory inspired the set design, this being a musical about drag queens, there are lots of vibrant colours to add theatricality, a heap of camp and create a feel-good atmosphere.

Watch where they’re walking

As eye-catching as the set may be, when it comes to Matt Henry’s performance as Lola, the audience’s eyes are firmly planted on the six inch boots that he has to dance around the stage in.

‘And it’s full on dancing in them’, he says. ‘It took seven weeks to go from Bambi to Black Beauty. And I’m still getting strong, still learning, but it’s amazing to know “Now I’m on a level with women.”’

Ironically though, the show’s leading lady Amy Lennox is the only person who does not have to wear Kinky Boots; ‘I wear the heels but I don’t wear Kinky Boots because I don’t have time [to get into them between scenes]. I don’t feel left out, I’ve got a cute dress. I’m fine.’

Someone who does not get off so lightly is Killian Donnelly, who plays Charlie Price, made even more daunting by the fact that he had never worn heels before (unlike co-star Matt Henry).

Donnolly says, ‘If he was Bambi, I was drunk Bambi because [Jerry Mitchell/the director] had given me heels in the job I was doing [Memphis] three weeks before I started rehearsals, so I’d be in the dressing room and I’d just slide on these heels and be walking around, knock on the door, take them off’.

It is not just Donnolly who had to face challenges however. The act one finale sees the entire cast dancing across a multitude of treadmills that join together to form the factory’s conveyor belts.

“You can actually kill yourself on the treadmill, go full out” – Jerry Mitchell

When asked about creating this spectacle, Jerry Mitchell said ‘When Harvey [Fierstein, the book writer] presented me with the first draft, he had all of these conveyor belts and then I went to Trickers and there were no conveyor belts and I thought “What am I going to do?” and then I remembered the OK Go video [Here It Goes Again]. They were on four treadmills on the floor and I wondered if I could put the treadmills in the air, four feet off the floor, could I create a conveyor belt that we could dance on?

So they built me an eight foot conveyor belt with no handlebars, brought it into the rehearsal studio and I fell off of it four times, so I sent it back to the shop and I asked them to build bars and I said let’s make them moveable bars, so I’ll be able to mess around with them and the thing went all different speeds, so I sent it back again and I said give me two speeds; slow and fast. By now I was getting the hang of it and feeling how I could use the bars, so it was about a six month development period and once I got one built and liked it, they made four more and then I called four dancers into the room and started creating the number... And they’re doing forward rolls and sliding and flipping... and then I started piecing it together with Stephen Oremus– our musical director – and came up with the number. And once the number was created, I knew it would be safe. Each machine has three buttons on it that are operated by the actors, so they’re doing it every night and they actually know what to do if one breaks down, how they continue the number.’

Harvey Fierstein: ‘And he [Jerry Mitchell] made them safety t-shirts.’

Kinky Boots is now showing at the Adelphi Theatre, London and is currently booking until Saturday 6th February 2016.

To book tickets, please call 020 3725 7068 or visit http://www.kinkybootsthemusical.co.uk/.