Concept & Creative Producer: Laura Drake Chambers
Director: Celine Lowenthal
Writer: Cressida Peever
24th September 2019 – 12th January 2020
A new immersive theatre/dining experience has taken over the labyrinthine Vaults Theatre for the rest of 2019: welcome to the Red Palace, a world of gothic delights and fanciful frights. Right now there’s a popular trend of re-imagining and remixing classic fairy-tales and fables, and Red Palace is an excellent example of this genre. Throughout the duration of an evening, your favourite childhood stories collide with snippets of more obscure folklore, their characters weaving together to play with and subvert assumptions and tropes. At the centre of it all is the Prince, your host in the palace – and the subject of an ominous prophecy…
I love cabaret, I love modern reinventions of fairy-tales, I love immersive theatre, and I love fancy dress, so in attending this show (and dragging two friends along with me) I was very much aware that I’d set myself up to be disappointed… and was pleasantly surprised not to be! It really was magical to explore the various chambers and meet their weird and wonderful inhabitants. Characters included Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf, Baba Yaga, Hansel and Gretel, and others I don’t want to give away (judging by the cast list, there were also a number whom I didn’t encounter, so perhaps I’ll have to go back for them during the run). These are not the folks you remember from childhood storybooks, however, they’ve grown up and had a makeover for 2019; Hansel is running a bar, Gretel is a cabaret performer, Snow White seems straight off TOWIE, and Little Red is basically a cross between Katniss Everdeen and a GoT wildling (with some serious childhood trauma). The cast multi-roles throughout the run so you may see very different versions of these characters to the ones I did, but I would like to make particular mention of a few performers:
- Emer Dineen as Gretel, who effortlessly embodied the roles of barmaid, compere, cabaret performer, landlord, and palace gossip. She made us chuckle, gasp, whistle, cheer, and damn near cry when at dark secret was uncovered… Excellent displays of bravado, vulnerability, and sexiness, in all the right places.
- Alice Morgan-Richards as Snow, who welcomed us into her “boudoir” for a pyjama party extraordinaire, complete with girl talk, a lesson in dance choreography, oodles of the colour pink, and a mystery party-crasher… Morgan-Richards absolutely threw herself into the role with joyful abandon, utterly shamelessly embracing the caricature and ensuring a fun time for all involved.
- Joanna Vymeris as Cat, whose every movement evoked the supple and sinewy flexibility of a feline, and who managed to be both alluring and creepy at the same time.
- Ella Prendergast as a character I shan’t name, who somehow has the act of awkward bumbling middle-aged male inventor down pat, despite being a very attractive young woman. In a cameo appearance in another character’s episode, she also went on to win hearts as a desperately hopeless Hugh Grant-esque would-be lover.
The rest of the cast (all women and non-binary performers, what’s more) were also fabulous, whether holding court in their own domains or weaving through others’ stories to tie the overarching plot together. It must have been difficult to balance these performances with the logistical responsibilities of chivying groups of audience members along to their next destinations, but they remained confident and commanding at all times. The costume and set designer, Maeve Black, also deserves the highest of kudos not only for her magnificent costumes, but also for her bewitching transformation of these Vault spaces (which go by names such as “The Bricky One”, “The Long Wet One”, “The Short Wet One”, etc) into sets such as a fortune-teller’s tent, a bathhouse, a dark and dank forest, a prison cell, and more. Such vision and attention to detail is particularly crucial in immersive theatre, and doubly so when the show is centred around such sumptuous decadence and sensuality as Red Palace!
So, why didn’t this piece get the elusive five-star rating from me? Well, in short, it suffers from the teething problems which plague all immersive theatre productions, as it’s impossible to really know what works and what doesn’t until you start getting audiences through. Areas for improvement include:
- The “escape room” element of the prison cell. It was just far too easy! I already had the answer from moments after we stepped in thanks to some telltale dialogue, and had to bite my tongue to stop myself from giving it away too early.
- The justification for it being a masquerade. This wasn’t woven into the plot quite convincingly enough, and as a result felt like quite a hollow pretext for an aesthetic choice. I think the “prophecy” could easily be expanded by a few words in order to give the Prince a clearer reason for demanding masks on all guests.
- The audience interaction. Again, this is a common bugbear for immersive theatre: how do you involve the audience, while still remaining in control? Some audience involvement in Red Palace did successfully toe that line (for example, the “party trick” bit in the Gingerbread House), but when asked by one character to deliver a message to another, it became very obvious that our doing so did not actually have any effect on events. Perhaps a few additional mini-scenes could be written as character responses to such code words, or small items or tokens given to audience members, to achieve more of a feeling of having influenced the scene? As it is, it feels more like promenade theatre in a random order. Which brings me to…
- The logistics of moving from scene to scene. This often involved queuing in front of stage spaces, with an usher ready to let us in at the allotted time, and somewhat disrupted the immersion. I have to compare this unfavourably to the smoothness of the Great Gatsby immersive experience, though I understand the mechanics were different there, as the scenes progressed through a plot rather than simply resetting.
It’s also worth mentioning that Red Palace also offers a dining experience, which starts an hour earlier than the rest of the show and includes a three-course meal by Annie McKenzie of Masterchef fame, a complimentary glass of bubbly, and exclusive seating and performances. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it in time for this dinner, but I did see some poisonous green toffee apples on their way to being served, and they looked pretty appealing, not to mention apropos!
I realise I’ve hit 1000 words with this review already and risk a telling-off from the Theatre Box site manager, so I’ll have to skip dissecting the meta-plot and its themes, as well as aesthetic references to Poe and Atwood. The last point I really want to make is this: tickets for Red Palace start at £18, and if that’s not a bargain, then I don’t know what it is. London, this is your chance to experience some magical theatre and have a ball while doing it (pun intended). Don’t wait until the clock strikes twelve!
Tickets and more information here.
Previous review: Baby @ Bread and Roses Theatre, Clapham Fringe