The ongoing problem with my annual fringe fix is that after Edinburgh, there’s an eight-month wait before the next one at Brighton. So, partly in an attempt to curb my fringe withdrawal jitters, and partly because Virgin Trains East Coast sell stupidly cheap leisure tickets at this time of year, I thought I’d give the Vault Festival a try. This is an arts festival that takes place in the arches underneath Waterloo station, and in case you ever forget that, you’ll be reminded by the noise of a train passing over your head.
So with ten events attended in four days, that fix should keep me going until Brighton, where I’ll be jittery for completely different reasons. But how does it do as a festival. Here is my first ever round up of the Vault festival. I’ve already written about a Devoted and Disgruntled session that happened to be on whilst I was there, but for the plays themselves, read on …
Before I go into individual plays, firstly a few observations about the festival as a whole, and how it compares to the festival fringes I know at Edinburgh, Brighton and Buxton. These are my main findings from my four days:
1) The Vault Festival is not a festival fringe.
An important difference between this and the aforementioned festival is that it is not an open festival where anyone can take part. In fairness, this is the only way the Vault Festival can run. There’s only a finite number of slots in a finite number of spaces, and it’s not enough to go round everyone who wants it. It’s not too different to the major venues at the Edinburgh Fringe – anyone can take part in the Fringe, but not everyone can perform at Underbelly – the only difference being that Vault is a one-venue festival. And it’s fair to point out that the Vault don’t try to pretend they are a fringe – my gripes are reserved for this recent wave of “noddy fringes” who’d have you believe they’re just like Edinburgh, but then curate the festival just like the Edinburgh Fringe doesn’t.
I do wonder, however, if the curated element is allowing the organisers to impose a political slant on the festival. I’m not going to name examples because I don’t want to personalise this, and it could be simply be down to who applies. I’ll need to see more plays at Vault before I deliver a verdict, but it would be a shame if a festival of this size is curbing freedom of expression this way. Other than that, it’s the usual trade-off of curated versus open: you are less likely to see the godawful acts that plague Edinburgh, but you the audience lose a lot of power to pick your favourites. It’s up to your what you prefer, but this is what’s on offer this time of year, so either go to it or wait for a fringe.
2) It’s expensive. Welcome to London.
You think the Edinburgh Fringe is bad? The Vault Festival is worse. Fringe veterans will know that a show that you might see back home for, say, £5, is more likely to cost £8 at the Brighton or Buxton Fringe, and £10 at Edinburgh. Well, for the Vault, you’re looking at £12. Food and drink is likewise costly. You Londoners might be used to these prices, but it comes as a bit of a shock to the rest of us.
Only remedy I can suggest is to go round Liberty or Selfridges earlier in the day. Check the price labels on some random items of clothing, which will probably cause you to teach the foreign staff every swear word in the English language. You should now be desensitised to London prices.
3) The Box Office management is surprisingly disorganised for a venue of this size.
You might think that, like the programme for pretty much any major venue at the Edinburgh/Brighton Fringe, the Vault programme would provide a quick and convenient list of what’s on today. Or it would be straightforward to check ticket availability on the website. But you’d be wrong. Reasonably simple things that similar venues at fringes manage perfectly well don’t seem to apply under the arches of South West Trains’ main terminus.
To be fair, the box office staff themselves all seem to be competent and caring, but you’d be surprised how complicated it is to buy a ticket for a performance tomorrow, feeling as if no-one has ever done such a thing before. So any organisational issues with the box office are down to the management rather than the staff. If you want to know what’s going on, you’re best off turning up after the venue opens at 5.45 (earlier at weekends) and asking someone in person.
4) There are a lot of works in progress.
One major function the Vault Festival plays is scratch performances. To some extent, all fringe theatre is a work in progress of some sort – even a polish performance at the Edinburgh Fringe might be refining itself – but it’s rare to see early script-in-hand performances as festival fringes, even the smaller ones. You’re more likely to see this at the Vault Festival. Whether you want to see this is largely your personal preference, but all the best Edinburgh Fringe hits had to start somewhere, so development here is as good a place as any.
One annoyance about this is that scratch performances are not always advertised as such. I don’t mind seeing script-in-hand performances if they’re good – indeed, with some of best performances you forget they’re holding scripts completely – but I do mind turning up and discovering it’s a scratch performance as I take my seat, especially if I’ve paid full-price expecting a full performances. That doesn’t always happen here. Performers everywhere, if it’s a script-in-hand performance or reading, I expect you to say so in advance. That’s common courtesy.
5) The Vault is an important feeder to the Edinburgh Fringe.
The Vault Festival might not be a Festival Fringe, but it’s still an important contributor to them. Like the Brighton and Buxton Fringes, a lot of shows perform at the Vault prior to Edinburgh. And some of them were bloody brilliant. Off-hand, I’m thinking of last year’s performances of the excellent Yve Blake: Lie Collector and the excellent and runaway successful Jurassic Park (or Dinosaur Park). I’d still rate Brighton as the best place to see good stuff before it goes to Edinburgh, but this festival might come a close second.
But how did the plays I see fare? Did I catch anything that I’d rate as this year’s surefire Edfringe hit? Read on.
Okay, here’s the bad news. The overall standard wasn’t as good as I’d hoped for. Perhaps Yve Blake and Superbolt artificially raised my expectations between them. Or maybe it’s simply because I didn’t know any of the acts and had to guess (unlike Brighton, Buxton and Edinburgh where I know which acts are worth catching). Whatever the reason, this year’s Vault didn’t rate that highly on wow factor.
Nevertheless, there were still some shows that I liked and some companies that I’d be keen to see again. Excluding two script-in-hand performances and one comedy, I saw five plays, and, in chronological order, here is what I thought:
This play comes from a group as the Flanagan Collective. They appear to be sharply dividing opinion with their shows, so I’ll dive straight in and say that this appears to be a competent groups of actors with some interesting and original ideas whose main issue is that they’ve got an awful lot of political axes to grind.
We begin with a long manifesto of all these left-wing things you should be doing. I can’t remember most of what was on the list except that we were urged to shoplift from Tesco several times over. (Legal disclaimer: chrisontheatre.wordpress.com does not endorse shoplifting.) After that, the next half-hour tells the story of a teacher ground down by paperwork, working hard but never earning enough for a place to live. Quite a lot of obvious digs here at the bastard Tories and their bastard cuts and their treatment of the working class as commodities. But running parallel to this is the development of her as a person: the she falls in and out of love easily, the weak heart (or the “magic heart” as her mother once called it) the prevents her having a normal life, but most importantly: her love of science and space. When she loses her job at her paperwork-obsessed school, she chooses on a whim to answer a dating match with a man who want to show her the starts in a remote town on the Scottish coast. He too, is an interesting character with his own backstory.
If I’m to sum up the issue I have with this play in one sentence, it’s that it feels like a soapbox piece with a story bolted on to it, and that’s a shame. I’m sure they believe in their long list of political grievances, but I’ve heard this all before and it’s predictable. The story, however, is something original and different, and deserves better than its bolt-on status. Perhaps the Flanagan Collective worry that they’ll lose their impact as political theatre, but I’ve always believe that the most effective political theatre makes people think, and the least effective political theatre tells people what to think. If they want us to leave with the message that teachers are undervalued, people are underpaid, we should shoplift from Tesco or whatever the intended message is, show us, don’t tell us.
Valkyrie: A motorway odyssey
This was one of two plays I saw as part of “The Locker”. I’m still working out the finer intricacies of the The Vault festival, but this seems to be a festival within a festival with a theatre company called Crowley and Co having overall responsibility. This first one, is definitely one of the most interesting premises out there. We begin with the “Driver” talking about her journeys over Europe – but why does this friendly automated voice keep chirping advising that’s you’ve died and you should follow the light path for further assistance? And, hang on, did she just mention she’d been doing this job for 1,000 years? As we discover, she is no ordinary HGV driver. Her job is to transport souls across Europe to a port that takes them to the afterlife over a servitude of one millennium. Only there’s an upcoming dispute over the terms of this deal: she thinks she returns to her mortal life afterwards; the authorities seems to think it was only a 1,000-year delay to her own journey into the afterlife.
I enjoyed this premise, but I’ve always felt that when you’re doing something this complicated to a play, you really need to keep everything else simple – at least, simple until the audience have got used to the complicated thing. Sadly, I felt this play didn’t really do that, with the complicated mutli-threaded story narrated through a solo performer at a pace I couldn’t keep up with. I never understood what this driver did in the 900 years before lorries were invented, and I don’t know if this left unexplained, or it was explained and I missed it. And I’m pretty sure there’s other threads I missed completely. I’m minded to say this play should keep the story, but extend the length of the play so the pace can be slowed down to something the rest of us can follow. The performance, directing and mysterious sound and lighting were all strong, so get the pace right and the sky’s the limit.
I Got Dressed in Front of my Nephew Today
Out of all the plays I saw at the Vault Festival, this one from Feral Foxy Ladies was my favourite. The play is billed as answers a women gives to a small child – but actually, this is only a small theme of the play. What this play is really about is the society’s obsession with looking fabulous with lip gloss, eye-liner, face-powder, and a whole load of other items that no man understands the use of. This is a heavily autobiographical play based on real-life make-up addict writer/director Claire Stone. It begins with the usual jokes – “Of course I look this fabulous when I’ve just got out of bed” – and a very funny sequence of what happens when you plan to spend two hours getting ready for a night out, only to discover you’ve got to leave now. It’s a different procedure to those of us whose idea of leaving now involves 1) brush hair, 2) put on coat, 3) leave house. But alongside the humour, then there’s also the expense and pain that comes with this devotion. Out of the many stories, the important one is where she diligently does her make-up on the bus whilst a little girl watches – and she wants to say “You don’t have to do this just because I do.”
Where I have the most respect for Claire Stone is that she could so easily have leapt on a bandwagon here. The debate over make-up is extraordinarily politicised for an issue of relatively minor importance, with plenty of people queuing up to blame it on the patriarchy, or capitalism, or men in general (hey, don’t blame us, we’re too shallow to tell the difference between cheap and expensive cosmetics). This play does not attempt to seek out figures for blame, just tell things as they are. As she puts most profoundly: “I have the choice to do this – but sometimes, I lose control of that choice”.
Couple of small criticisms. I found the use of the blonde wig confusing. I wasn’t sure why a scene where a brunette getting ready to go out was followed by a video of a woman in a blonde wig still getting ready on the tube. Is that meant to be the same woman or a different one? I don’t know. And the bit at the end, where lots of people gave their thoughts on make-up, whilst interesting, dragged the pace down at the wrong moment. But those are only minor problems, and if you’re after something that is funny without being crude, intelligent without being judgemental, this is a good one to go for.
The Signal Man
Now on to the second Locker Room play. As with festival fringes, most plays at The Vault are entirely new works, but this play, for a change, is an adaptation of a classic. It’s a short story from Charles Dickens, and it’s a wonder we hear so little of this story nowadays, partly because it’s a good story, and partly because of the interesting link to his real life. This story, centred largely around a signal man who witnessed a horrific rail disaster, may well have been influenced by a real rail disaster that Dickens himself was involved in.
It’s a very faithful adaptation, as befits a work such as this. Charles Dickens has a lot of respect for being one of the first authors to write about the world as it was and not just the rose-tinted world of high-society, and for generations afterwards his stories are fascinating snapshots of these moments in time. Here it’s a world where the working man’s life has been transformed by the railways – but it’s also a world where life is still cheap, and railway safety is in its infancy, and a chance series of misunderstandings can be deadly. And the signal-man of this story was part of this chain of mistakes that led to the worst tragedy in the history of the line; one that Dickens based heavily on the Clayton Tunnel Rail Crash.
Part ghost story, and part story of a man’s burden of guilt, Dickens created a desolate world of an isolated signal box, and this world is brought to life excellently by playwright Simon Blake. There’s scarcely a weak link in the production, with the cast of three, the original music and the set all fitting the mood perfectly. This group might have played it safe with a classic tale whilst other bolder groups took bigger risks with fully original work, but they’ve done the next best thing and brought life back to a worthy forgotten story. Definitely worth a visit.
Finally, there was this ambitious and interesting piece from HOAX and Lumiary theatre about mental illness. But rather than do the usual gloom-fest on this subject, they tried to look at it through a more humorous angle. It’s a well-know theatrical device to bring humour to dark subjects to keep an audience interested, but on this subject I can vouch there is a surprising amount of overlap between the funniest and darkest thought in real life. They’re not the first people to do this; Alan Ayckbourn did something like this back in the 1980s with the legendary Woman in Mind. But there is important difference: Ayckbourn freely admitted he did not research on actual mental illness – his main source of inspiration was his own mother (and, as anyone who’s seen that play knows, the premise was heavily based on a woman’s imaginary family to compensate for her unhappy life with her real family). This play was heavily based on the real experiences of the writer, Karis Halsall. Always very brave to make public a subject so personal to the individual. (They also relied heavily on advice from a real heath professional in the cast, an unfortuantely-named Katie Hopkins.)
I attended a workshop before the play, and one reference to real event was a man whose mental health has broken down completely and is in and out of hospital. But the story isn’t about him; it’s about his sister June, whose burden of looking after him and fighting officious hospital staff is taking its toll on her own mental health. Also taking its toll is her new marketing job. Now, I don’t know whether this absurd workplace was entirely a product of the author’s imagination, or whether this too was based on real events, but with it being a marketing agency I suspect the latter. June’s boss seems very keen on her doing a marketing presentation for tap water (a Virgin Mary-themed purity label being the hot favourite) and also has some very particular ideals on the correct amount of make-up female staff should wear. Certainly not as much as the secretary, whom she cattily asks whether she applies her make-up with a spatula or a shovel.
Like Woman in Mind, real characters and imaginary characters intermingle until it become unclear which is which. If there’s one thing the play lacks – and to be fair, all the Vault plays I saw were guilty of this to some extent – it didn’t do much to keep the audience guessing. Once you start watching the play, it’s easy to guess how it will go. Nevertheless, it is a good job of a very bold project, and I was able to end my festival on a higher note than I started.
In closing …
Apologies to anyone hoping to catch me after this play, but with Hysterical overrunning by 10 minutes with an already tight journey plan to get back to King’s Cross for my 9.00 train, I had to run like bloody fuck to make it in time. But I made it with 5 minutes to spare.
Would I choose the Vault Festival over the Brighton, Buxton or Edinburgh Fringes? Probably not. My ideology makes me support an open arts festival ahead of an open one anyway, but I had expected a bit more benefit from a curated festival. (And, to repeat my earlier disclaimer, Vault was be at a disadvantages because I didn’t know any of the acts and therefore didn’t have personal favourite to go to.) But it’s not a choice of one or the other; it’s something extra on offer before the fringe season begins.
So I will probably come back next year, assuming Virgin Trains East Coast carry on selling their stupidly cheap leisure tickets for this time of year. That’s all from me with the Vault Festival. Festival Fringe coverage starts imminently.