REVIEW! Red Palace by Shotgun Carousel @ The Vaults

Concept & Creative Producer: Laura Drake Chambers
Director: Celine Lowenthal
Writer: Cressida Peever
24th September 2019 – 12th January 2020

 

Images courtesy of Nic Kane Photography

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.

Images courtesy of Nic Kane Photography

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.

Images courtesy of Nic Kane Photography

 

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!

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)

Tickets and more information here.

Previous review: Baby @ Bread and Roses Theatre, Clapham Fringe

 

REVIEW! Church of the Sturdy Virgin @ Vault

Presented by Dank Parish
Unit 9, the Vault Festival
Part of Let’s Talk @ VAULT Festival
6 – 7 March

CHURCH 5th bannerHiRez1.jpg

I don’t know why there’s something funny about the word “sturdy” – there just is. Combine it with the concept of divinity and even virginity, and you have a ready-made aesthetic for your interactive theatre show. This flavour of mock seriousness mixed with absurdity, religious satire, and just plain silliness typifies the Church of the Sturdy Virgin which is currently taking place at the Vault Festival as I type.

The piece started with an irreverent funeral procession along the grungy Leake Street, led by gothicky black-clad actors, the audience standing in for mourners. Upon entering Unit 9 – which with its high ceilings, shadowy spaces, and air that distinctly tastes of damp, really does feel like a ‘dank parish’ – we stepped into a wacky and slightly sinister hallowed ground. A winding path into the church proper took us past various nooks and rooms, half-hidden from view, populated by actors being weird and creepy in various ways. The best way to describe the aesthetic of the set design is that it reminded me strongly and favourably of the recent Sabrina reboot: mixed skulls and flowers, leather-bound books, old chalices, sinister-looking curiosities, tattered scrolls… there was even a graveyard section, complete with mounds of dirt, from which bones shone dirty white. I really have to hand it to the set designer, they really impressed me with their creative touches, sourcing of props, and commitment to detail. Despite being small-scale production with, no doubt, an even smaller budget, the set designer created a high-quality backdrop for the show’s action which perfectly supported and enhanced the experience.

Unfortunately, the contents of the play didn’t quite measure up to its set design. In fairness, I did go on a very early night in the run, and with interactive theatre the nature of the beast is that you can’t properly improve and perfect it until you have an audience, so no doubt it is running more smoothly and tightly now than when I saw it, but… there was definitely a fair bit of room for improvement.

Perhaps the biggest problem was that they had a clear structure for the beginning and ending of the piece (ie, introduction to the church and a funeral, respectively), but the momentum of the show got lost somewhere in the middle. We were rushed through the various scenes and activities in a way that felt both frenetic and time-stressed, but also like improvised filler material. Audience interaction was rife, but only ever in a limited or truncated fashion. Despite the fact that we were given secret missions in the past – for example, to discredit the recently deceased, or eke out some scandalous secrets from the disciples/actors – there was never really time or opportunity to act on these. At times there was a tinge of desperation to the actors’ performances, like they were in uncharted territory – which makes sense, if the show was still in the process of being reworked. This meant that often there was a lot of rambling improvisation. Unfortunately, genuinely interesting ruminations on society’s relationship with death, or satirisations of the same, were often lost amongst seas of quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake. 

Criticism aside, there were moments where the show really did work. Three stood out to me in particular, and each made me feel a different way:

  • Mass sing-alongs of classic pop hits as ‘hymns’, the congregation clapping and singing, as the church’s disciples led the performance with perfect poker faces and expression of religious exultation. This sense of incongruity, absurdity, subversion, and hilarity was exactly what Dank Parish was trying to achieve throughout the show.
  • A ritual to exorcise a room (and a woman) of a disturbing spiritual presence. For this rite, four of us (our “family”, which we were allocated at the beginning) needed to take a corner of the room each, in which a small stool displayed a number of items each representing a different “element”. We were told to conjure a memory of connection to our particular element, and to hold onto that as we chanted lines of power and used these elements to purify the space. I honestly did feel like I was connecting to magical forces in that moment! A genuinely mystic episode amongst all the absurdity.
  • The opportunity to write some words of wisdom in the congregational tome. I chose the last words said to me by a loved one right before I died, which I genuinely do try to keep with me and live my life by. Writing them in the book, I saw others’ contributions – most of which were incredibly silly, hamburger hamburger hamburger ha for example – and this juxtaposition made me smile and reflect on the myriad ways that we, as humans, cope with the senselessness of our world.

Overall, I feel that Church of the Sturdy Virgin has the potential to be a really interesting piece of immersive theatre, with some workshopping, tweaking, and tightening of structure. The aesthetic design is already top-notch, the actors were clearly enthusiastic about the project, and some of the concepts were very effective. After a bit of work, this piece could truly become sturdy, and stay sturdy.

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)

Previous review: A Hundred Words for Snow @ Trafalgar Studios

Thirsty! Tori Scott @ The Vaults

14th March- 18th March
Performed by Tori Scott

Tori+Scott+_+03+(1+of+1).jpg

Tori Scott’s Thirsty! is a freewheeling hour of cabaret, filled with salacious humour and honestly affecting songs. Scott slings together risqué vignettes taken from her own life with numbers ranging from Judy Garland to Janelle Monae. The result is ribald fun and an authentic New York cabaret atmosphere.

Tori Scott’s comedy is generously self deprecating, and she delivers punchlines with hilarious frankness. Her stories all riff on the theme of “thirst,” whether that be thirst for booze, and the joyfully depraved places that’s led her, or plain old sexual desire. At some point in the performance she refers to the piece as a cautionary tale, but there’s no real narrative connecting the stories, nor does our heroine seem to learn any real lessons from her experiences. Tori Scott doesn’t really want to teach us anything, she just wants to entertain, and on that level she certainly succeeds.

What surprised me was exactly how she goes about doing that. While the humour is bawdy and the comedy sharp, the real joy for me came from the singing, accompanied by Scott’s appropriately named band, The Shame Spirals. Scott is an extremely talented and skillful singer, and the generosity that she brings to her comedy is doubly present in her singing. She sings with both self-assured panache and honest, soul-baring emotion. It caught me off guard: one moment I was hearing a particularly suggestive bit about making eye contact with a public masturbator on the New York subway, and the next I was hearing a surprisingly soulful cover of Hozier’s ‘Take Me To Church.’ Like mixing sweet and salty, the contrast makes both stronger, and the variety brings a zesty flavour to the proceedings.

I did feel that the performance was slightly let down by its venue. Not by the Vault Festival in general (which is a perfect match for Scott, with its neon underground atmosphere and ready access to alcohol) but by the Crescent theatre specifically. The Crescent is a fairly conventional, pros-arch space, about as conventional as one can get in a disused underground tunnel. I’m no expert in cabaret, but to my understanding it’s most often performed in more of a pub or comedy club atmosphere, with audiences sat around tables and, crucially, the ability to get up and order more drinks. The dead-on nature of the proscenium arch and “latecomers will not be admitted” atmosphere all felt a bit too formal, and jarred slightly with the very loose energy of the show. However, I’m nitpicking, as the fun electric vibes of the Vault festival more than make up for the slightly over-formal structure of the Crecent.

If Thirsty! sounds like it would appeal to you, here’s my advice: Show up early. Take a few friends with you. Preferably, some or all of you will be gay men. This is to best enjoy Tori Scott’s many references to gay culture, terminology, and dating apps, but is by no means a requirement. Spend some time at one of the Vault Festival’s many bars, soak in the underground atmosphere, and have at least a couple of drinks. Then, get ready to sit back and enjoy some raunchy, entertaining cabaret.

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)

Tickets

Das Fest @ The Vaults

28 February – 4 March, 2018

Created and performed by ‘Vienna’s Master Illusionist’ Phillip Oberlohr

Philipp Oberlohr's Das Fest at VAULT Festival (courtesy Daniel Haingartner) (7).JPG

Photography by Daniel Haingartner

The Vault Festival is a very cool place. If you haven’t been yet, you need to go.

Last night I attended Das Fest by Philipp Oberlohr and I have to say it’s one of my highlights of the festival so far. On a snowy winter’s night, I went out in the cold to make my way to the show. I’m a sceptical person and I must admit I felt a little unsure about the prospect of going to a mind reading show. It’s all a trick surely? However, when I left the theatre an hour later, I felt happier, slightly confused and my mind was pulsing with questions like ‘How did he do that?’ and I felt very glad I had come to the show that evening.

Das Fest is the sequel to Das Spiel which was awarded the People’s choice award in 2016. I was excited and curious to see what was going to happen in this new show. The atmosphere was buzzing when I walked into the room, the audience were waiting, slightly nervously too see what was in store for them.

Now, the best thing about Das Fest is the surprise element. I don’t want to ruin it so I’m not going to write about what is going to happen to the audience in the show. However, what I can say was that Philipp Oberlohr is a charming performer. He is captivating, likeable and trustworthy. Despite the underlying fear the audience felt like they could talk to him, with one audience member staying on stage for most of the show! There was some wonderful imagery created in the show, my particular favourite involving a white umbrella and a black umbrella. The images created on stage were beautiful.

I thoroughly enjoyed Das Fest and would recommend seeing it for an entertaining evening. The physical theatre elements used in the show were excellent, as was the imagery and the performance. Go to the show, take some friends with you and then enjoy the ‘But how did he do that?!’ conversation which will inevitably happen in the bar afterwards.

 

 

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)

Tickets

Be Prepared, Ian Bonar/Rob Watt @ The Vaults

7 – 11 February, 2018

Written & Performed by Ian Bonar
Directed by Rob Watt

 

Be Prepared - Edinburgh Fringe 2016 (Photo by The Other Richard) 6

Photos courtesy of The Other Richard

 

A heart-breaking but hilarious play about one man struggling to remember while another finds himself unable to forget.

Be Prepared is a return of Ian Bonar’s first play, first shown at the Edinburgh Fringe 2016. An alumnus from the acclaimed Royal Court Writers group, Be Prepared is very well written and you can appreciate the language and the text as an audience member.

An equally talented performer, Bonar is engaging and sensitive on stage and  takes the audience on a whirlwind emotional journey. The performance is gripping through a majority of the piece, only suffering from an occasional hiccup in pacing. Despite this, Be Prepared keeps the audience on their toes with some very funny and unexpected surprises throughout the play.

The concept of ‘one wrong digit can change a person’s life forever’ could have been clearer in the piece; however I would recommend this show for its brilliant script, storytelling, and a hilarious and engaging performance from Ian Bonar. It’s definitely a show not to be missed at the Vault Theatre Festival.

 

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)

Tickets

Think of England, AIAWTC @ The Vaults

Wednesday 7th – Sunday 11th, 2018

by Madeline Gould
Directed by Tilly Branson

Leila Sykes and Matthew Biddulph in Think of England, credit of Ali Wright

Photography by Ali Wright

 

Based on a real-life WW2 scandal, audiences become part of a crowd sheltering from the Blitz and meet a pair of women who set up a tea dance to raise moral. When some Canadian pilots join the fun, they threaten to uncover some dangerous secrets.

This show is brilliant. It’s delightful and charming, and oh boy it is fun! A powerful and moving drama, with playful characters and joyful air, it entertains and scandalises.

The cast are just wonderful. Special mentions to the boisterous and irreverent Madeline Gould (Vera), who welcomes you into the world of the show with a roguish smile and a sly wink, and to the utterly lovable and lovelorn Stefan Menaul as Cpl. Frank Lamb – whom you spent most of the show trying not to run up and cuddle.

Leila Sykes gives a subtle and heartfelt Bette across from the slime-ball that is Pip Brignall’s Lt. Tom Gagnon, who makes a wonderful and cynical antagonist, vying with Matthew Biddulph’s charismatic Lt. Bill Dunne to be top dog.

They’re deeply empathetic characters, perfectly portrayed and wittily written. A big congrats to the cast, they really bring this show alive.

Leila Sykes and Madeline Gould in Think of England, credit of Ali Wright (2)
It really is superbly playful, and hearing bombs drop and giggling together at the repartee and love triangles, I began to feel an odd sense of community with my fellow patrons, as we all smiled sheepishly at each other in an impromptu jive lesson and take part in the raffle where you stand the chance of winning the luxurious prize of two fresh eggs.

This is all wonderfully balanced with the well-acted and fiery drama that unfolds before you.

The Vaults is a perfect venue. Though the acoustics occasionally aren’t kind and some of the pacing could be tighter, the cavernous and dripping hall sucks you into the world of the play before spiting you out the other side touched and grinning from ear to ear.

 

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)

Tickets

Becoming Shades, Chivaree Circus/Upstage Creative @ The Vaults

24 January – 18 March, 2018

Directed by Laurane Marchive

Becoming Shades at VAULT Festival 2018 (courtesy Maximilian Webster) 2

Photography by Maximilian Webster

 

In the echoing bowls of the Vaults, with dripping walls and shadowy figures, the memory of the Goddess Persephone lives on in flashes of retelling. Chivaree Circus and Upstage Creative have created an incredible evening of entertainment.

If you’ve never been to the Vaults or it’s festival, I thoroughly recommend this show as a first experience of it, and hope it leads you to the other shows this extraordinary venue has to offer.

There’s almost no dialogue. It’s a retelling of the Persephone & Hades myth story through circus, movement and music. The show is all about atmosphere and is a showcase for the unbelievable talent of the performers.

The aerials and pole dance are just stunning to watch, and oh my god they are good. The grace of the performers is hard to overstate. You watch in open-mouthed wonderment, in awe of the human body and what it’s capable of.

The music by Sam West performed with Becks Johnstone is haunting and gorgeous, and I wish there was a full album available for purchase, so I could tell you to buy it.

On the subject of atmosphere, the design is wonderful. Lights, music, costume and performance are pitch perfect. Charon, the ferryman to the underworld looks like if something from Star Wars read H.P. Lovecraft. It’s creepy and engrossing, and it transports you.

The immersive elements of the piece are more to enhance atmosphere that to provide actual interaction with the characters and events in the play. Still, it works, and the use of the space is clever and dynamic.

A major downfall is that it’s not the clearest retelling of Persephone. The individual acts are connected more my theme and setting than the plot. Some of my fellow audience members were baffled as to what was going on, though still awed and entertained. It’s not particularly kind in leading one through the events of the narrative, and the lack of dialogue doesn’t help.  So, if you don’t know the myth, I’d recommend this as some prior reading.

In a show like this, the plot isn’t really the point though. The point is having your mind blown. So, grab a ticket, and go get your mind blown.

 

 

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star HALF 2

Tickets