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Review: Becoming Shades (The Vaults)

Chivaree Circus begins an eight-week run of its immersive circus show

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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The Underworld has come to Waterloo station, in a spectral treat of a production from Chivaree Circus.

This is immersive theatre largely done right. We're ushered into a room, as deep inside the London Vaults as is permitted, given black, medical masks (necessary protection against a world of death, we're told), before being introduced to the ferryman Charon, whose job it is to oversee our descent into hell. With the multi-headed dog Cerberus prowling around the crowd and the Furies prodding and prompting us, we are led around the cavernous room to witness a series of circus sequences, loosely retelling the Greek story of the death and life of the Hades' queen Persephone.

The all-female cast of six blend different circus disciplines with ease, from the fire-breathing and juggling Furies through to two Greek gods performing all manner of aerial work across the 90-minute spectacle. The perfect balance of intimate and epic keeps the pace ticking over, the Furies holding our attention while the larger set pieces are being assembled. It doesn't always work – a cursory "How To Train Your Hellhound" comedy skit from Charon feeling tonally misplaced and undercuts the grave tone of the rest of the show.

For those without a working knowledge of the tale of Persephone and Hades, the show's loose plot may feel rather evasive and the slow pace in the first half of Becoming Shades definitely sapped the experience of some of its exciting verve. But the production makes up for this by doubling down on its conceptual tautness, allowing Jessica Hung Han Yun's lighting and the music from Sam West to constantly remind us of our purgatorial surroundings. It leads to some beautiful moments – during a silks performance Hung Han Yun's lighting creates a gradual fade from cold, deathly blue to warm, passionate red along the silk fabric as Hades and Persephone embark on an aerial courtship, limbs tangled and dangling. The two themes of the show, death and passion, visually juxtaposed.

The performers are inexhaustibly energetic, especially Rebecca Rennison as Persephone, moving from sequence to sequence, through the different disciplines on show. Molly Beth Morossa's Charon, sporting a bulbous, metallic pomegranate helmet with two leering LED eyes, has a distinctly insectoid physicality that feels as malignant as it is benign.

Special credit must go to West's score, bolstered by some eerie vocals from Becks Johnstone. A mixture of live performance and pre-recorded backing, the throbbing sounds of bass grumble around the Vaults, with the style resting somewhere between The Weekend, Alex Turner and "Stairway to Heaven".

But heavenly this ain't – this is a sumptuously Stygian production, lavishly created by designer Carlota Caball. A blend of gothic, steam-punk and floral designs all come together to create an underworld humming with colour – death has never been so vibrant.

Becoming Shades runs at the Vaults until 18 March.

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