The autumn leaves were plundered and soiled, the air instead laced with the bitter frost that the winter queen brought, sending collective shivers down our spines. Gone were the tepid autumnal days, where pups and trees danced in seasonal unison and in its place were gnarled, wizened branches, leafless and friendless. For winter seemed but a barren landscape, no blooms, no colours, not even the gaudy (but fun) decorations that the festive season would bring, not now when November’s heart had only just begun beating. So imagine our unbridled delight when a royal invite from the Red Palace arrived, plunging us into a world where the boundaries between reality and fantasy had merged, oh so seamlessly. We would join the other royal courtiers in a dance of make believe, spinning into a fairytale world where wrong was right and up was down. We would feast like nobles in a banqueting hall, instrumental covers of contemporary music echoing around our chambers. There would be prosecco bursting into fragrant bubbles in our throat, breaking the fourth wall, surely there was no prosecco in the medieval era? And then it clicked, part historic-fiction part modern day, it was a seamless interrogation of both worlds, where fairytales like Hansel and Gretel and Cinderella came to life for a modern-day audience. We relished the revelry, we licked our lips, the time had come to don our gowns. For the Red Palace at The Vaults had its mystical hand outstretched, laced with wonder, intrigue and promise, would our dreams come to fruition? Or would it be our darkest nightmare, poison ink upon our lips?
Out of our hearts we plucked a carnivalesque fantasy, woven with deliciously twisted fairytales, red, green, pink. Red for Red Riding Hood the avenger for her people, Green for the mermaid siren who stole our hearts, Pink for Cinderella in her fluffy pink negligee. But I’m getting ahead of myself here, the narrator overcome with the deliciousness of a gothic multisensory theme, sucked into a royal gathering that was an experimental and inventive theatrical delight. We were led by the courtiers who called upon us to feast and take our fill, inviting us to sample the pre-show menu, you won’t regret it they promised, eyes glittering like sapphire orbs. The lights were dimmed but the royal tapestries above exuded the qualities that all good medieval banquets should have – power, elegance, wealth. The nobles took their places at the table, each courtesan slipping a mask over their faces quickly, would we be playing a game of cat and mouse? But it seemed that the Prince had other goals, for this was no game but their reality, a masquerade world that embraced the freedom of escapism, imploring us to be who we wanted to be. We relished the idea of losing ourselves for the night, drink in hand, fuzzy with contentment, but the Prince unraveled a legion of secrets on us, the curse was coming. Could it be that the masks were not as he said ‘to create freedom of expression’ but instead to run away from our realities, to turn our backs on what we feared most? It seemed that the more that the night went on, the more our suspicions were right, where the twisted fairytales at the Red Palace were the Prince’s collection of nightmares, who could have foreseen that ending? It was an ending like no other, one I have been sworn to secrecy to protect, but just remember that on your own trip to the Red Palace… not everything is as it seems.
For now the air was merely clouded with a tipple of political intrigue, no murderous endings, no treachery, no foresight of what was about to come. At last our suppers were here, bowls of delights for the nobles at court, ravenous bellies sniffing out trinkets. Storyteller and Masterchef Semi-Finalist Annie McKenzie (Scripts for Supper: Wind in the Willows) curated the banquet for the impatient nobles, declaring that a decadent evening of feast and fantasy would whet our appetite oh so gloriously. Alas for me the choices weren’t quite so fruitful as my meat eater friends, small plates that barely filled the hollow in my stomach, growling out for more. The carnivores chowed down on slow cooked, rolled cumin and coriander spiced breast of lamb with a pomegranate glaze, coconut yoghurt and fresh pomegranate which they declared the food of the gods, smacking sounds of appreciation bubbling from their mouths. And while the menu at first glance appeared to have plenty of vegetarian options, the portions were meagre and small, surprising considering The Vault’s previous fare at ‘Dinner is Coming’ had larger vegetarian portions and even made a special dish for me that catered to all my allergies.
Here there seemed to be no main course, small side plates, where the potatoes were the main event. But what wondrous potatoes they were, salted and fluffy, bursting with bridled flavour that made the world disappear around me. Nevertheless, despite the smaller portions the food itself was delicious, the homemade honey Irish soda-bread with whipped rosemary butter and sea salt crystals swimming in a glaze of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. The first dance, where a spiced lentil and beetroot salad with pickled shallots battled with rosemary and garlic baked camembert with cornichons. Certainly the appetizers and the starters were more enjoyable than the main course, a flaky shallot tarte tartin that I did not care for given that I was not a fan of onions, the butternut squash, leek, buckwheat and basil bake seemingly missing from our tables. A side dish of red and white cabbage with fennel and celeriac slaw with pomegranate was apparently doing the rounds but again this mythological dish did not touch my lips. I asked the waitresses and alas there was no more for me, the only vegetarian on our large table, but sweetly they brought me more potatoes, knowing how I craved its tender, salted flesh. The desert to finish was a novelty; salted caramel toffee apples with coconut, cocoa nibs competing with popping candy, we loved the sound in our mouths, childhood nostalgia on our tongues.
The plates were cleared, it was time to enter our devilish fairytale, would we get out alive? There were six rooms that were clamouring for our attention, six different narratives that were almost entirely separated from ‘The Red Palace’ and yet at the same time inextricably linked. We were almost confused, had almost lost sight of direction, not knowing which room to enter or whether rooms were in chronological, a little clarity would have been helpful. But despite the Lewis Carol esque nonsensical plot, Red Palace was a glorious immersive masquerade ball, showcasing cabaret, circus, dance and genre defying performance in a delicious melting pot of theatrical desires. Produced by none other than Shotgun Carousel we braved the choppy waters of Red Palace, mesmerized by the allure of the mermaid with a sensuous voice, smooth like velvet, an iridescent algae crown an emblem of glory, even when locked underground in a murky basement. And yet being cut off from the world did not dull her wits, lamenting her search for ‘her love’ whom she’d never met but heard, a powerful voice to match her own. When at last her love came to find her, we were surprised at the result, who would have foreseen that… shhhh.
We met Cinderella the comedy queen in all her boudoir glory, a Tinderella if you will, Hansel and Gretel in a bar that they owned, putting on a burlesque performance for the big, bad wolf, who apparently left their badness at home, mere discontentment on their lips. And while the mermaid siren was exquisite who could forget Red Riding Hood as the avenger of the people, lining us up like mutton for the slaughter, she would avenge the souls that were lost. There was comedic timing peppered with irony, sadness in salty tears, laughter in an iron heart and above all wonderment in the unknown as we weaved through glamour, danger and transformation where we too could find our own fairytale ending. But while I cannot give away too much about the plot, what this narrator can gush about is the cast, made up of a wholly female and non-binary cast of players, aerialists and cabaret artists including Ella Prendergast (Secret Cinema Presents Bladerunner: The Final Cut), Teddy Lamb (Since U Been Gone, HighTide), Porscha Present (Divine Proportions, The Vaults) and Emer Dineen (The Dark Side of Love, Camden Roadhouse).
For Red Palace was an immersive dining experience like no other, shedding the binds of gender and sexuality conformity to release a world of pleasure and acquiescence. Deliciously risqué, the sybaritic evening was an all-encompassing voyage through a world where extravagance was the norm, labels were left at the door, and everyone could be who they truly were. A symphony of Shakespearean character actors, death defying circus performers, cabaret and burlesque royalty, with some of the most experienced, immersive and promenade actors in the UK came together to make Red Palace a reality. From tarot readers, improvisational comedians, singer-songwriters and contortionists to drag kings and MCS, the non-binary, trans cast celebrated, elevated and provided a wondrous platform for the LGBTQ community embodying empowerment, freedom from gender constructs and a safe space free from judgement or vindication.
With the allure of the Carnivals of Venice topped up with the Gothic macabre of Edgar Allen Poe, Red Palace was more than just your average fairytale, but a masked ball on the cusp of surrealism, peppered with vicious narratives from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian and modern day politics, what a delight it was to see. A play where power and duplicity were at the forefront of the story, an allegory to look out for the poisonous gases that would envelop you in a blanket of deceit. A fable for the beautiful, the brilliant, the wanton and the bizarre. Nothing and no one were what they seemed. We too left our identities at Red Palace, for one night only, swept up in a world where we were free to be whoever we chose to be. And that was the most freeing feeling of all…
Have You Ever Been To The Vaults Before?
Please note we were gifted this immersive experience via Love Pop Ups London in exchange for this blog post but all thoughts are my own and are not affected by complimentary services.