Red Palace is an immersive, dark fairy tale, playing at The Vaults with an all-female and non-binary cast this autumn. But does it match up to the classics? Daniel Perks reviews:

In the subterranean cavern of The Vaults, a feminist fairy tale is playing out. Laura Drake ChambersRed Palace imagines a fantasy scenario in which The Prince, having tyrannically ruled over a kingdom for 1000 days, is having a party to celebrate his reign. But the red death is coming for him: it’s been foretold that on this very evening – at this very ball – The Prince will fall.

And fall The Prince does. But it’s not spectacular, or progressive, or particularly innovative.

Red Palace is however a pleasant evening of interactive theatre, if a little rough around the edges.

Chambers’ concept begins at the party, with the VIP option providing a tantalising three-course meal courtesy of MasterChef semi-finalist Annie McKenzie. While a delicious set of pre-theatre treats, there is very little that ties the food itself in with the storyline. Except for a green toffee apple as dessert – that’s pretty Snow White.

The production is creatively well thought out and realised in Maeve Black’s plush, luscious set and costumes, Michelle Etherington’s subtly shaded lighting and Alex MacKenzie’s haunting undercurrent of sound. Each room of The Vaults is transformed into a different fairy tale, playing less on the sickly sweet, misogynistic Disney vibes and more on the original, more sinister Grimm and Andersen stories of old. It’s dark and dank and delightfully daring.

But in immersive theatre, there needs to be more than these disparate strands that an audience can somewhat bemusedly wander in and out of. An interactive production set in such an iconic venue as The Vaults caverns – host to the like of Les Enfants TerriblesAlice’s Adventures Underground and Dinner At The Twits – needs to have a central storyline that holds it all together. Each room can have its own sub-plot, and in fact should allow the audience to experience little Easter Egg treats that provide some level of exclusivity and agency over proceedings. But the pay-off comes when the audience knows that each of their side missions contributes to a core plotline that culminates at the climax.

The Red Palace is anticlimactic. The final scene, taking place in the main ballroom, only makes sense if the audience has been into the woods – a very specific room – beforehand. And if this is so central to the narrative, Celine Lowenthal’s direction and Cressida Peever’s script must ensure that every audience journey takes them through. In an theatrically interactive format, a more prescribed audience path – rather than allowing free reign and wandering about – will better serve this production.

Free reign is great for the likes of Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man, not so much here.

Despite these flaws, Red Palace is a strong ensemble piece, a cast comprised entirely of female and non-binary individuals. Each performer multi-roles, and in this show it is Emily Essery’s Red that shines brightest – strength and assurance embody Essery’s characterisation. Eleanor Dillon-Reams as The Prince, Teddy Lamb as the Wolf and Emer Dineen as Gretel also put in captivating turns, while Steffi Walker as The Mermaid is the comedy highlight of the night.

All of this makes for pleasant viewing, wandering round to see the Red Palace unfold. But despite being an immersive show, there is a fourth wall present between performer and audience. The connection is lost because the conceptual grip is too loose – Red Palace is not nearly as fantastical as its source material.

★★★☆☆

Red Palace plays at The Vaults until 12 January 2020. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the show website.