Red Palace, The Vaults

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by Laura Kressly

In an unnamed kingdom long ago, the prince celebrates ruling for 1000 days despite a prophesy saying that his reign will only be that long. He is convinced he defeated the fates, so has invited his citizens – nobles and peasants – to explore the wonders of his palace in a night of feasting and debauchery. Exploiting the Vaults’ atmospheric tunnels, writer Cressida Peever draws on Edgar Allan Poe and the Brothers Grimm to create this promenade and gently immersive, dark fairytale.

The production teams up with actor-chef Annie McKenzie, so audiences can choose to begin the experience with a three-course meal and some walkabout entertainment before the show properly begins. Drawing on the production’s gothic and mystical aesthetic, McKenzie’s sharing platters are highly seasoned with fragrant herbs and spices. Rosemary, pickled vegetables, and pomegranate are reoccurring flavours that complement each other well with sweet and sour, though the wooden benches and table layout on the balcony overlooking the show’s Great Hall aren’t particularly comfortable and some of the dishes on the menu don’t appear. Dessert is a whole toffee apple, and the sugar coating is sticky and tooth-breakingly hard. But gnawing on them whilst overlooking the show’s introduction – a movement piece by the company, a brief aerial silks act and some story exposition – feels decadent.

The prince invites us to explore the various chambers of his palace, where we hear more of the “woman’s sickness” and “red death” the prince was told will end him, and his response of slaughtering all of the forest women. With the audience able to choose what rooms they go into and when, the storyline will emerge at varying speeds and order, and the allocated time means that it’s impossible to see all the rooms – I miss out on the bathhouse scene. Some of the scenes have less of a bearing on the core narrative, but all draw on fairytales with violent and/or sexual focuses. Snow White (Teddy Lamb) can be found in a decadent boudoir and pink lingerie, where she awaits the prince she sees in her fragmented mirror. Playfully flirting with the audience, Lamb is engaging, fun and fabulously femme. Opposing moods include Baba Yaga’s frank fortune telling, and Hansel and Gretel’s public house where Gretel is a sex worker and we find out the true story of the twins. The entire company skilfully interact with the audience and embody heightened but engaging archetypes.

The transitions are messy, though. The entire audience exits the different rooms along a central corridor at roughly the same time, causing crowding, queueing and ushers shouting instructions. These fight against the show’s mood and tone, and demonstrate that in productions like these, crowd control needs to be considered as part of the dramaturgy rather than just a logistical, front-of-house issue. The staging of the final scene also needs to be looked at; the audience stands around the action in the Great Hall and it’s difficult to see beyond the first couple of rows. This scene is also anti-climactic and rushed, like an afterthought rather than a satisfying conclusion.

The discovery of the prophesy’s true meaning forms the big reveal and with it, the reclamation of womxn’s role in these ancient stories that rely on misogynistic female archetypes. This is further reinforced by a cast of women and nonbinary people. Though the ending and the crowd management are downsides, it’s a hearteningly feminist and inclusive production.

Red Palace runs through 12 January in London.

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