Thursday, October 3, 2019

Review: 'Red Palace' at the Vaults, 2nd October 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

The chips are stacked in Red Palace's favour. An immersive fairytale inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death? Taking place in the subterranean vaults underneath Waterloo station? And it comes with dinner? If I were trying to sell the show to myself I'd just end the review right here.

But I won't, because I'd like to encourage you to go to Red Palace. It's really quite something. Staged by Shotgun Carousel, you attend a masquerade ball at the invitation of a sinister and egotistical Prince's. You soon learn that there is a dark prophecy scheduled to come true that very night. With that in mind, you explore the tunnels and caverns of The Vaults, encountering twisted versions of classic fairytales in surreal environments (this is the best I've ever seen The Vaults look).

There's also the option of a £50 VIP ticket that includes a pre-show dinner. Considering a regular ticket is £25, a further £25 for a three-course dinner is a pretty good deal. I'm no restaurant critic, but the food was delicious and the portions were generous. The menu caters for vegetarians and vegans, and you get a little pre-show interaction with some of the cast.

That leads directly to the show itself. After a short atmospheric introduction to the evening, you're left to explore. What you find are a series of 15-20 minute vignettes: you might sit down at a table with Baba Yaga and have your palm read, see a lascivious mermaid make filthy double-entendres or explore the deep, dark woods with Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. I think I saw most of what was on offer, but the show insists that "curiosity is rewarded", so I'm sure I missed some stuff. 

A warning though: each performance featured direct interaction with the audience. This can range from some mild teasing to being called up on stage and asked what to perform "your party trick". In one room you're invited to play truth or dare, the dare was being asked to breakdance in front of the whole audience - I was intensely relieved I hadn't volunteered.

This means that Red Palace, with its encouragement for the audience to remain glamorous, witty and fancy-free maybe isn't the best show for the shy. At any time you can be accosted by a predatory performer begging you to tell them a secret, or giving you a flirty grilling about your job. Theoretically, the masks should help, but by the mid-way point, many had removed theirs (I'd removed mine because it didn't play well with my glasses).

The performers for each role rotates on each performance. From my perspective, this feels a shame because each was so good on the night I attended that I can't imagine anyone else in the role. Highlights were Emily Essery's Red (whose piercing gaze is intensely intimidating), Steffi Walker's hilariously horny mermaid and Alice Morgan-Richards' fun n' bubbly Snow. 

Red Palace isn't particularly shy about revealing its feminist qualities (I mean, there's a big hint in the title). The cast is composed of female-identifying and queer performers, the narrative revolves around revenge for wronged women and each individual performance highlights some aspect of femininity. 

This feeds into the impressively detailed set design and the venue itself. I'm paging Dr Freud, but the yonic qualities of the Vaults' damp, dark underground spaces feel intentionally amplified to fever-pitch. Shotgun Carousel have created a triumphantly feminine world in this place - and it's no surprise when the show concludes with BeyoncĂ©'s Run The World (Girls).

My one real criticism is that the finale is a bit of an anticlimax. Essentially you're told what's going to happen... and then it happens. The night has been building up whether the prophecy is going to be fulfilled, but then it's all wrapped up in a couple of minutes and the narrative just sort of comes to an end. It's nowhere near enough to spoil the show, but after so much anticipation it's a shame to end things on a flat note.

Red Palace is set to run until early January, so I'm sure by then the show will have evolved a bit and the few rough edges will be smoothed out. Until then I suspect that word of mouth is going to make this a top attraction for those with adventurous theatrical tastes. 

Red Palace is at The Vaults until 12th January. Tickets and info here.

Photos by Nic Kane Photography.

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