“This is a fairy-tale…!” Perhaps, but not as you know it. Shotgun Carousel wowed audiences (and us) last year with their innovative take on the Greek deities and all things culinary with their immersive-dining show ‘Divine Proportions’ at the Vaults. And this year’s offering – ‘Red Palace’ – is no less subversive or spectacular.
Whereas ‘Divine Proportions’ was a purely sit-down affair, with the show taking place around and between dinner courses, ‘Red Palace’ moves away from food and into the more immersive Punchdrunk theatre scene.
Loosely based on Edgar Allan-Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death’, ‘Red Palace’ begins with an (optional) four-course feast at 6pm for those choosing a dining tickets, and anyone coming for the show alone joins the party for 7.30pm, when the focus very much shifts on to a walk-about theatre show. But it should be noted, whether dining or not, the audience of ‘Red Palace’ is anything but a spectator. Those who chose slightly pricier dining tickets will get sneak previews of some of the weird and wonderful characters of ‘Red Palace’ via a few over dinner interactions, as well as a balcony view of the first section of the show. Those with show-only tickets may miss out on the feast but will have a more front-row seat to the opening masked ball at 7.30pm sharp.
Whilst all audience members don their (obligatory!) masks, Shotgun Carousel’s company of all-female and non-binary performers open with an aerial silk show and a masked dance behind red veils. We are then introduced to ‘The Prince’, our host for the evening (played with delicious relish by Eleanor Dillon-Reams). He invites us to explore everything his palace has to offer, in a chose-your-own-adventure style theatre show. Over the next 2 hours, audience members are free to wander the Vaults and discover its hidden rooms, each with a story and a story-book character or two to act as our guide (a tolling bell and helpful musical cues letting us know when it’s time to move on to the next).
You may find yourself picking your way through a damply moonlit wood led by a Red Riding Hood with a bow and a bad attitude, or learning dance moves in the fluffy boudoir of a primped-up Snow White, or getting a lap dance from a thoroughly gorgeous Gretel (with useful ‘interjections’ from her brother Hansel). But watch out for the Big Bad Wolf who seems to know more than he’s letting on, and the Prince of the Red Palace himself who isn’t above a little mass murder to keep his subjects in line.
These characters may sound like familiar fairy-tale archetypes, but Shotgun Carousel specialises in subversion and they’ll be familiar in name only. The witch isn’t wicked, the little-girl-lost isn’t so innocent, and the Prince certainly isn’t here to save anyone (except maybe himself)!
There are several rooms to explore – in fact, more than can be seen in one night – which cleverly invites punters to come back another time or for larger groups to split up and share their differing adventures afterwards.
When the show is over audiences can choose to stay on in the Red Palace and dance the night away with a drink in hand (with the masks on or off as they chose).
Shotgun Carousel can never be accused of lacking in aesthetic flair and ‘Red Palace’ is no exception. The design (by Maeve Black) sits somewhere between Disney and gothic chic – the Big Bad Wolf himself is dressed in a leather mask and spiked cuffs wouldn’t be out of place at Torture Garden, and Snow White has a wardrobe Madonna would envy – and each of the rooms the audience may find themselves in has in owns unique stylings. The attic of Baba Yagga (a play on a Russian fairy-tale witch) is like something straight out of a Victorian séance; all deep sofas, diaphanous fabrics and crystal balls. The woods of Little Red Riding Hood are bleak and foreboding; dripping walls, low-hanging branches and shifting shadows. And if you’re looking for Hansel and Gretel, you’ll find the ‘Gingerbread House’ in the shape of a London speakeasy. Each of these environments is a triumph of set-design (helped by Alex Mackenzie’s atmospheric and thrilling sound design).
Audience members would do well to dress-to-impress themselves – Shotgun Carousel are offering a generous 20% discount with the famous costumiers Prangsta if you fancy going all out – as a bit of OTT dress-up is all part of the Shotgun vibe!
Anyone who’s ever found themselves at a Punchdrunk show should feel right at home here! This is an evening for the adventurous (warning – you WILL be asked to participate. This is not a spectator’s sport), and you’ll be served by a willingness to whoop, cheer and jump up on stage if the mood takes you.
As with last years ‘Divine Proportions’ the crowd is on the younger side (though don’t be fooled by the fairy-tale label – this is definitely not a show for children) – millennials with a penchant for adventure and dress-up, and an open mind. One can picture this being a great night out for large groups of friends, especially if you’re willing to split up and share your different adventures afterwards over a cocktail. A laid-back evening, however, this certainly is not, so might not be one for those who don’t fancy being on their feet for much of the evening!
Fans of MasterChef may remember semi-finalist Annie Mckenzie, who is in charge of Red Palace’s three-course banquet (for those picking an all-inclusive ticket). Ever so slightly fairy-tale-themed, the menu is big on flavour and a fine amuse-bouche to a fantastical evening. My personal highlight was an almost cake-like Irish Soda Bread, served with creamily whipped rosemary butter, balsamic vinegar and olive oil for starters. Cheese fans may well find themselves fighting over communal servings of baked camembert, cornichons and pangratatto, while vegans are well-served by a tasty roast beetroot and spiced lentil salad. The main event is pomegranate-glazed lamb breast (or an equally sticky sweet onion tart tatin) with a wealth of sides in the form of roasted potatoes, fennel, beetroot and celeriac slaw, caramelised chicory and butternut squash, kale and leek parmigiani. A dessert of (poisoned?!) toffee apples with coconut, ginger and chocolate finish things off nicely.
Shotgun Carousel continue to blaze the way with their female and non-binary led companies in turning traditional tropes on their head. Everything feels a little bigger, bolder and braver than last years ‘Divine Proportions’; more theatrical, with a willingness to go both darker and sillier. Where they score is a level of detail and thought in the individual rooms themselves, all so enjoyable that 20 minutes inside them absolutely fly by and you find yourself almost unwilling to leave. Cressida Peever’s script is both witty and poetic, Celine Lowenthal’s direction is playful and inventive, and the performers themselves do excellent work in both deftly crafted characters and their off-script banter with the audience. Particularly enjoyable were Ella Prendergast as a gold-spinning and sweetly bumbling Rumpelstiltskin and Emer Dineen as a sexily gyrating but affectingly grieving Gretel.
Unfortunately, a choose-your-own-adventure format does mean the story itself isn’t always the clearest, and it’s not always apparent where you’re supposed to go next (or indeed where you are period). You might find yourself missing crucial plot points by missing out on certain rooms, and the large crowds make getting where you want to go a touch tricky. And masks in darkened corridors don’t necessarily help!
And while there is much that is spectacular, the denouement lacked just a little punch (ironically given it’s a battle). You’ve spent such an enjoyable night with these characters, it seems a shame not to see them feature more strongly as the night draws to a close.
In a nutshell
Shotgun Carousel has an inventiveness and subversive creativity that is hard to beat! A playful, humorous, aesthetic and performative delight of an evening. If it is slightly rough in places it in no way steals from its myriad charms, and even if you sit out of the overall banquet you will enjoy a feast unlike any other in London.
‘Red Palace’ by Shotgun Carousel at The Vaults, Leake Street, SE1 7NN; www.thevaults.london.com; 020 7401 9603
Performances ongoing until Jan 12 2019, Tuesday-Sunday, Doors: 6.00pm for dining, Show starts at 7.30pm (runtime 2.5hrs, with the bar open late after performances; prices between £45-£70 per head for dining, £18-£30 show ticket only)