Becoming Shades is one of several shows headlining VAULT Festival 2018. Billed as London’s answer to Edinburgh Fringe this festival showcases performances from new and emerging artists and is a veritable hotbed of alternative theatre. From 24th January to 18th March it takes over the labyrinth of tunnels below Waterloo station every Wednesday to Sunday with a program packed with theatre, film and comedy.

Created by London-based contemporary circus team, Chivaree Circus, this show is a mix of circus and theatre, featuring fire-breathing, acrobatics and aerialists.

It’s loosely based on the myth of Persephone and her abduction by Hades, God of the Underworld. The audience is greeted by a masked figure, Charon, and invited to journey into the underworld with Charon and the three ‘Furies’, performers wearing dog-like headgear, representing the three-headed dog Cerberus. It’s a far cry from the standard seated show you might expect though: the audience are guided through the vast, open space that is the Forge, the Vaults’ largest venue, as the performance takes place around us, the cast gently shepherding us from place to place. We gather around Rebecca Rennison as Persephone for a contemporary dance sequence, the three Furies enthrall with juggling and fire-breathing – a representation of Hades – and we are led across the Forge in a journey that mimics Persephone’s on the river Styx, here represented by ropes pulled by the cast.

This is where the performance begins to stray from the story it is supposed to be telling. For the bulk of the performance, the links to the myth are loose and the references to it are often hard to grasp beyond the overall themes and aesthetic; this is a show focused less on storytelling and more on awe and spectacle. However, this focus doesn’t always play to its strength – in many parts it feels more like a sequence of separate acts than a story as a whole and many seemingly key aspects are easily lost on the audience. The cast clearly represent Persephone, Hades and other inhabitants of the underworld, but the details of who they are get easily lost.

“Performers are so strong that, even when it’s confusing, Becoming Shades is still amazing”

In a lesser show, this might have been performance-ruining, but the strength of the performers is such that, even when it’s confusing, Becoming Shades is still somehow amazing. At one point we are invited to encircle a lonesome figure dancing on a pole, taunted by the other performers around her. Her dance is amazing and the claustrophobia of the audience and other cast members encircling her only adds to the sense of palpable distress. This is far from the only impressive routine; there’s more amazing acrobatic work, with elaborate acrobatic performances using only ribbons and rings suspended from the ceiling.

This isn’t to stay that the entire show is flawless. A brief comic interlude on ‘how to train your hellhound’ is jarring – it makes little sense and the tone is so completely out of keeping with the rest of the performance that it seems hardly part of the same show. The all-female cast are without a doubt the best part of Becoming Shades. Rebecca Rennison as Persephone really leaves an impression; as does Alfa Marks as Hades. Rosie Bartley, Jessica Pearce, and Isobel Midnight are brilliant as the ‘Furies’. They drive the performance, forming the bridge between the beautiful aerial solos of the two stars. They don’t rest and, even during the interval, they remain in character, interacting with the audience in a way that prevents the mood of Hades from dissipating.

The other stand-out aspect of the performance is the music. The original score, created by Sam West, captures Persephone’s tragic melancholy and the darkness and terror of Hades. It’s rendered all the more effective by the live performance from West and fellow performer Becks Johnstone, whose operatic voice perfectly captures the eerie melancholy of this particular version of Hades.

Despite its flaws, there is a lot to be said for Becoming Shades: it’s certainly different from standard theatre or circus and there is a uniqueness to the experience that can’t be overstated. If you fancy an immersive performance and want to try something different, it’s a show that wont leave you feeling disappointed.

4 Stars

Where? The Vaults When? Until 18th March How Much? From £22.50