The latest in an increasingly long line of theatrical dining experiences is Shotgun Carousel’s Red Palace. Just opened at The Vaults, it sees Scripts For Supper AD and MasterChef runner up Annie McKenzie providing a lavish four-course feast as a precursor to Cressida Peever’s twisted fairytale. The plot itself draws on classic fairy stories from the likes of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, as well as the Gothic horror of Edgar Allan Poe – but exactly how much you hear is up to you, as you navigate your way around the palace…
If you have a dining ticket, your evening starts about 90 minutes earlier than everyone else’s as you head in for a complimentary glass of prosecco and head up to the VIP dining area. When I first saw the menu a few things stood out, though I was a bit apprehensive at some of the others – however, I have to say that Annie McKenzie has excelled herself. If I’m honest, I could have happily sat there eating the honey soda bread with rosemary butter all night, but it wasn’t to be! The whole menu really took me by surprise, from the lentil salad to the slaw and coconut yogurt; other favourite elements were the spiced lamb and shallot tarte tatin, as well as a beautiful salted caramel toffee apple.
Everyone on serving duty is very friendly and efficient, making sure there’s plenty to go round and movement through the courses is fairly swift on the whole. Towards the end of the meal you’re joined by some of the cast, so you start to get a bit of an idea of what you’ve let yourself in for! If you can afford one of these dining tickets, I definitely recommend it as it gets your evening off to a marvellous start.
Once you get to around 7.30pm, everyone on general admission will have gathered downstairs and the performance begins. Everyone begins and ends together; the Prince has heard about a red death that will cause his undoing, so has taken some quite brutal steps to prevent the prophecy from being fulfilled – but is it really as simple as that?
After this it’s a choose your own adventure type affair, as you are invited to head off to the various separate rooms to hear from other characters.
I’m not in love with the mechanics of the production, as it is unstructured to the point of bafflement. For starters, you have no idea of the rooms and residents that are on offer – providing a simple map with this information on would work wonders, as you could make a slightly informed choice about where to go. One character did try to take some of us off to a particular room for the first rotation, though another character waylaid us for no apparent reason so we were left stranded and ended up in a random room instead! At the end of each section the performer did try to suggest where to go next, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get there…
I like the intentions of the central narrative, seeking to overcome an oppressive ruler and exploring female empowerment, but with everyone in the audience coming at the finale with a different set of knowledge it doesn’t have quite the impact that something either more structured or straightforward would. The fact that there’s almost two hours in between the two scenes with the prince probably doesn’t help either. And whilst I’m always up for a bit of salty language, it lacks impact when chunks of the text are “fucking this, fucking that” – initially it’s obviously quite funny to hear coming from a fairytale character, but a bit of variety is necessary.
The individual rooms (from what I experienced) feel a little more developed and certain of themselves, plus the performers are considerate about what audience members are comfortable with so you do feel at ease. Of the four rotations that I did, the Bathhouse with the Mermaid definitely stands out; Steffi Walker is hilarious in the role, with a hint of vulnerability as she longs for her true love.
Though it doesn’t necessarily live up to all of its potential, it’s almost worth it for the meal alone – and if you plan a visit with a group of friends you should have a fun night.
Because there aren’t really a lot of instructions, I’d like to offer you some tips and recommendations:
- Diners – don’t hold back on your dessert, and make sure you check the time (at our performance the show started without warning, so I didn’t quite get to finish).
- If you’re not comfortable wearing a mask, you don’t have to. I wear glasses, for example, so it’s not really doable anyway – but you won’t be thrown out if you’re not all dressed up and masked!
- There isn’t enough space for every diner to stand upstairs and watch the opening performance, so best just to join the “peasants” downstairs.
- Make sure you visit Into The Woods, as the ending will make a bit more sense – plus you’ll feel a little more involved in creating the ending…
- There is an interval (of sorts) between the third and fourth rotation – pay attention to what’s going on, as you may be ‘reminded’ (though the pedant in me will point out that you can’t be reminded about something if you haven’t been told in the first place) that it’s your last chance to see what’s going on in the palace.
My verdict? Doesn’t quite live up to its potential, but there are lots of good ideas – worth it for the dining alone!
Red Palace runs at The Vaults until 12 January 2020. Tickets (dining and non-dining) are available online or from the box office.