Being but an ‘umble despot trying to scratch out a living in my modest smallholding in the hinterlands (aka anywhere beyond Zone 1) at the outskirts of the Prince’s glorious realm, you can well imagine I was over the moon to be invited to his royalliness’s court at the Red Palace for an immersive night of food and fairy tales, music and masquerades, mystery and murder. I bade my dogsbody clad me in my sparkliest finery before setting off for the Vaults at Waterloo where I put on my mask and best ‘airy graces that would allow me to keep my true identity ‘ush-‘ush, letting me mingle seamlessly with the nobles and courtiers.
At this point I begin to realise, however, that I may have been a little overenthusiastic with the instruction to “don your mask and your devilish alter-ego”: certainly nobody else is introducing themselves as Chief Despot Adrian the Insincere. The evening opens with a delicious three-course meal (cooked by Annie McKenzie) in Maeve Black’s spectacularly decked-out banquet hall for a number of guests with more expensive VIP tickets. We are seated at tables where we spend a pleasant hour getting to know the fellow-diners around us. I am hoping for a few more hints of what might unfold throughout the evening, but aside from a few fleeting introductions to the Prince (Eleanor Dillon-Reams) and some of his staff, we are left to our conversations.
Once the non-dinner guests arrive, the hall bursts into life with the Prince revealing that we have been invited to his Red Palace to celebrate the thousandth and, according to a prophecy (which he dismisses at his peril), the final day of his reign. We are treated to a couple of group and individual performances, most notably Rosie Rowlands’s elegant gravity-defying aerial acrobatics, before we are encouraged to explore the other chambers of the palace which are opened up to us with the suggestion that “the curious will be rewarded.”
I can only conclude that I must possess insufficient curiosity since I am offered meagre reward by the remainder of the evening. We split into groups and trundle through five or six rooms in whichever order suits us, each with a fairly unconvincing parody of a fairy-tale character awaiting us. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the individual performances, but rather that the cast are severely hampered by the meandering monologues they are given. These are nominally structured around audience participation but give us little opportunity to make any contribution more than the occasional yes or no. I spend a fair amount of the evening trying to work out what, if anything, I’m meant to be doing, since there’s a sense that the actors are waiting for the audience to do something as much as we are waiting for them, although what that something might be remains unclear.
It is only at the fairly anticlimactic resolution (we are more or less told what will happen beforehand) that it becomes fully clear that the hints of a missing intrigue are little more than attempts to make what is essentially a very simple plot seem more than it is. Whilst there is plenty of potential in the idea of combining a fancy-dress ball with immersive theatre, Red Palace gets lost between the two and lacks the substance of either a compelling story or any genuine opportunity for guests to have a say over the course of the evening. It spends a lot of time huffing and puffing but rarely threatens to blow the house down.
Red Palace is playing The Vaults until 12 January. For more information and tickets, see The Vaults website.