The Red Palace (The Vaults, Waterloo)

The Red Palace (The Vaults, Waterloo, until January 12th 2020)

⭐⭐⭐

Dark fairy tales with a labyrinthine twist encourage you to discover the secrets behind the masks in Red Palace, a decadent blend of comedy, cabaret, burlesque, circus and immersive theatre.

The many rooms of the always versatile Vaults at Waterloo provide the perfect venue for a collection of neo-Gothic stories where nobody or nothing is what they seem to be as a series of saucy, seductive and strange characters lead the audience through a puzzle of gender-bending entertainment.

After being sent out from the ballroom by a tyrannical prince who demands loyalty from all of their subjects, you are invited to explore rooms including Snow’s Boudoir, the Gingerbread House, Baba Yaga’s attic and The Woods where a range of storybook favourites unfold a tale of abused power and vengeance.

Cressida Peever’s story is well-conceived  and executed with a talented female and non-binary cast playing a diversity of roles, such as dizzy birthday lass Snow White (a cheeky and far from white Alice Morgan-Richards), who mimes to Material Girl  as she waits to be swept off her feet by a handsome prince; a bow and arrow toting Red Riding Hood (a modern heroine in Emily Essery, as likely to cheer you on to rebellion as she is to cut off your leg in a fit of pique); a bad wolf with attitude (a snarling Teddy Lamb); a psychotic Gretel straight from the world of Weimar cabaret (Emer Dineen) stripping to Lorde’s Royals… this is a promenade production where you never know precisely what lies in wait beyond each door.

A playful pinch of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death here, a dash of Grimm there, a peppering of improv in dark corridors, ad libs under the arches and a mite of music hall – all combine to present a happy ever after adventure where the message is a solidly satisfying “Be good to one another” and “Don’t be afraid to be yourselves.”

Last year the same company, Shotgun Carousel, presented Divine Proportions, based on Greek myths, at The Vaults and the same themes – extravagance as the norm, labels left at the door, the blurring of lines and everyone invited to be who they truly are – run through this generally pleasurable and lively experience.

The story – such as it is – of Red Palace is about a Prince (a rather likeable but deliciously heinous Eleanor Dillon-Reams) who is close to marking the 1000th day of his reign. He is worried and nervous about a legend that on that very day he will die because of what is only described as “a woman’s sickness”. He has had all the women in the forest put to death in the hope of avoiding his fate and now welcomes the “nobles” (an exclusive few seated on the balcony, with VIP dining tickets) and the “peasants” (the rest of the audience) to a grand ball.

Audiences are encouraged to come wearing masks (rather different to last year’s instruction of “clothing optional!”) but uncertain expectations and a good dose of British reserve means pleas for interaction don’t always ignite –  bemused watchers quickly learn not to put hands up to avoid being asked to perform a trick (on press night “X-rated Xavier” bravely offered a scarf dance when picked on) or having to answer such direct challenges as “what is your grudge?”

Fortunately the dozen experienced performers know how to deal with a sheepish crowd, but a lot in the whole show relies on this interplay so clearly you must hope to be there when there’s a responsive bunch in to get the best benefit. Each of the artists has great charisma and all manage to weave the various threads together with expertise, though the random nature of the event means you are sometimes asked about an episode you have not yet experienced.

Celine Lowenthal’s direction certainly means there is a never a dull moment, whether it’s a fortune-telling witch communing with the dead (Baba Yaga, played perfectly by Porscha Present with a permanent naughty grin) or a lush mermaid telling a few fishy tales (Steffi Walker). Each performer delivers with energy and finesse and especially tune in to those members of the audience who don’t mind letting hair their down or appearing foolish for art’s sake.

The way the audience is herded around and the time factor would appear to make it impossible to enjoy the goings-on in every room, which seems a shame when each storytelling scene is a jigsaw piece which when put together create the full picture. Only half way through the evening our group was corralled back to the main ballroom and only by sneaking through another entrance were we able to see some more – but not all – of the stories.

Certainly the main corridor, off from which lie each of the various rooms (not unlike the venue’s previous Fantasia or Alice’s Adventures Underground experiences), becomes something of a heaving mass of bewildered guests, unsure of which queue to join or whose instructions to follow. It’s a great pity, because the number of enticing chambers is surely small enough to make a visit to each possible before being dashed off to an abrupt finale (which could certainly be better written to bring everything and everyone together) where villainy is vanquished and everyone dances happily ever after.

The bawdy ambience is magnificently accentuated by Maeve Black’s colourful, extravagant design – Baba Yaga’s “hut on legs” in particular is a visual masterpiece of beguiling odds and ends and you want to spend more time than you should there casting an eye over the books and other magical mementoes – and the costumes are raunchy, risqué and often ravishingly ridiculous.

For those feeling they wish to be “nobles” on the night, it is possible to have a VIP dining experience before the show and the sharing menu, provided by Masterchef semi-finalist Annie McKenzie, is a sumptuous feast boasting such delights as homemade honey Irish soda bread, cumin and coriander spiced breast of lamb and “poisoned” salted caramel toffee apples. Plenty of rosemary, coconut and pomegranate though (alas and alack) no hint of “once upon a thyme” to tie in with the fairytale theme.

It is not immediately clear how this enjoyable food relates to the show itself (unlike Divine Proportions, where the dining was far more linked to the performance), though the Prince and his mischievous cat (Joanna Vymeris, who should be given a lot more to do though this reviewer might well have missed her “story” in a particular chamber) visit each table treating the diners as lords and ladies and hinting at mysterious secrets. However, each part of the feasting menu is mouth-wateringly yummy and paying a little extra for the VIP treatment is highly recommended.

Red Palace is a creative, multiroom experience that utilises the cryptic chambers of the venue well. It may feel muddled at times (there can be no excuse for guests being left to stand around with nothing to do when there is so much on offer), but as it conjures up the spirit of 18th Century Venice Carnivals and spices them up with a contemporary vibe this raunchy revelry offers plenty to savour. As an example of decent and decadent immersive entertainment it plays everything by the leather-bound book.

David Guest

Images: Nic Kane  

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub http://www.thereviewshub.com/

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