Writer: Cressida Peever
Director: Celine Lowenthal
Reviewer: David Guest
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, 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 bad wolf with attitude; a psychotic Gretel 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 and a mite of music hall – all combine to present a happy ever after adventure where the message is “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.
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 or a lush mermaid telling a few fishy tales. Each performer delivers with energy and finesse.
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 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 small enough to make a visit to each possible before being dashed off to an abrupt finale where villainy is vanquished.
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 the costumes are raunchy, risqué and often ravishingly ridiculous.
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 no hint of “once upon a thyme” to tie in with the fairytale theme.
It is not immediately clear how this 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 visit each table treating the diners as nobles 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.
The Red Palace is a creative, multiroom experience that utilises the venue well. It may feel muddled at times, 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.
Runs until January 12 2020 | Image: Nic Kane