Roundup: Vault Festival 2017

The main bar at the Vaults

REVIEWS: Skip to: Scenes from an Urban Gothic, This is not Culturally Significant, Circle Line, Claustrophilia, Mars Actually, Blood and Bone, Ventoux, Three unrelated short plays

So Vault 2017 is on. This time last year, doubts were being raised as to whether there would be a Vault 2017 at all owing to financial worries. I was always a little sceptical of this worry, because realistically this space can’t be used for anything else, but whatever the worries, this year, it’s as busy as ever, with no sign to a casual observer that there was ever any trouble. So I found the time to get myself down to London and dip my toe for four days.

To repeat the same thing I said last year (and will probably repeat every year), the Vault Festival should not, as some in the arts press suggest, be considered London’s answer to the Edinburgh Fringe. The whole point of the Edinburgh Fringe is that anyone can take part. The Vault Festival, on the other hand, is a curated festival. I don’t like this blurring between the two kinds of festivals, because this encourages the practice of claiming your festival as a fringe then curating it (e.g. York, Ludlow), depriving entry-level performers of opportunities to get started that is so desperately lacking right now.

This is not in any way the fault of Vault – they never claimed to be a fringe themselves, it was other people who labelled them that way. It would help, however, if they were open about how they curate the festival so the difference is known and understood. I heard that a lot of acts this year was chosen based on a theme of “space”, but that could mean anything, and I always think it’s better to be open about this.

Anyway, enough of that. Let’s get on with covering the festival.

What’s changed from last year

There are two things about Vault which haven’t changed this year.

  • It’s still expensive compared to even Edinburgh, with most tickets costing £12-£15. That’s London for you.
  • Vault wi-fi still doesn’t work properly, usually falling over by 8 p.m. every day. Sort it out. Please.

But a there’s a few things of note that are different from previous years such as:

1) The Vault Festival is expanding out of the Vaults

The Vault festival might have had an uncertain future last year, but the signs are the opposite. This year, they also took in the nearby venues of Morley College and the year-round Network Theatre. I haven’t counted the number of events this year compared to last, but I think we can safely assume the festival is larger.

I’ve heard it vaguely suggested that the Vault could use its expansion to become less curated and more open. That idea, whilst a nice one in principle, probably isn’t workable in practice. I don’t know how demand compares to supply for the Vault Festival, but my guess is in order to make this into a festival where anyone can take part, they’d have to take on a vast number of venues all around London. But London already has an extensive network of small theatres where, I understand, it’s quite easy for anyone who wants to put a play on to do so. In effect, London is already a sort-of year-round festival fringe, and I don’t see much value in the Vault trying to duplicate this function.

Curated festival it is. Just so long as people understand there’s more to London fringe theatre than the Vaults. Which, let’s be fair, the London theatre scene broadly does – certainly a lot more readily than the festival fringe scene is willing to recognise there’s more to the festival fringe circuit than Edinburgh. So whilst we can expect more shows to fill the programme, expect the variety to sat about the same.

2) The box office appears to have got its act together

Hooray! Last year, the thing that surprised me was how complicated it was to buy a ticket in person at the box office. No problem buying one on the day, but try buying a ticket for tomorrow – a very common occurrence in Edinburgh or Brighton – and it was like they’d never done this before. The root cause, I’ve worked out, is that they sell most of their tickets online and like to do ticket checks based on the list of customers rather than who holds physical tickets. So the minority of people who buy at the box office confuses things. Paper tickets on the day are okay, but tickets bought at the box office before the day were the problem.

So it seems that the solution – a quite logical one when you think about it – is to book in people buying tickets are a future day into the system as if it’s a web sale. And it looks like it works. I’m still not sure what stops them selling tickets the same way that Edinburgh and Brighton venues, but, hey, it works now. Happy for them to stick with it.

3) The festival was dominated by a high-profile immersive piece is probably a one-off, but Vault 2017 will surely be remembered above all else for the Guild of Misrule’s immersive production of The Great Gatsby. In spite of running throughout the festival, and double the price of most plays, the entire run sold out. I was one of the people who never got round to buying a ticket, but it looks like most of the audience really went to town on the 1920s dress code, if the queue to get into the play was anything to go by.

Is it any good? It is conceivable that a play such as this could have a  been sell-out due to the fun of dressing up as jitterbugs rather than the merits of the production itself. But the evidence available suggests it’s more than that. The reviews from the original productions in York were excellent, and, okay, local press is prone to get over-excited about everything, but this 4* review from The Stage (£) and this 5* review in My Theatre Mates suggests they have produced a work somewhere between good and outstanding. They now have another London run booked in June, and surely there will be a return to York at some point, if not a nationwide tour. I think we will be hearing a lot more of this in the next few years.

4) Donald Trump jokes are the new in-thing

It was probably inevitable. I’m in two minds about it. On the one hand, complete douchebag though Donald Trump is, I’ve never been a fan of dogpiling. Major public figures are fair game, but there’s nothing particularly daring or cutting-edge in joining in with a kicking everyone else is already doing. On the other hand, there’s no shortage of dumb-ass things Mr. Trump is saying, gifting us a wide range of comedic inspiration, and it still seems a shame to let it go to waste.

I think my only reservation is that it’s possibly being overdone. I get the impression that so many people are clamouring to include anti-Trump jokes in their play that they are ending up shoehorned into places where they don’t really work, sometimes confusing the plot of the play as a whole. It’s not really my business to tell people who can and can’t make an anti-Trump statement, but don’t feel obliged to join in lest people not realise that theatre makers don’t like him. I’m pretty sure we’ve got that base covered.

Just one request: if you want to make Donald Trump joke, please pick one other than orange skin. That’s been done to death.

And now, the reviews

Right, enough of that. You’re probably here for the reviews, aren’t you? Here we go. Plays are listed in chronological order. I’m including all the plays I saw because none of them were absolutely turkeys (hooray) – the only one I haven’t included is a stand-up duo, simply because I don’t see enough stand-up comedy to feel qualified to review it.

Let’s go …

Scenes from an Urban Gothic[Full disclosure: I did a scratch performance of something similar last year, and I didn’t review another show done a little little later because it was too much like mine. This I think is sufficiently different for me to judge it fairly and not get petty and competitive, but you can decide that for yourself.]

So we begin with an hour-long mime act. No, don’t run away. I know what you’re already imagining, but you’re not in for an annoying street performer on the street of Paris pretending to be stuck in a box. Theatre Imaginers’ piece is very different from that kind of mime. It was actually quite a bold move to put a mime show into a festival dominated by more straightforward theatre. Mime can be an art from that relies on the audience knowing the conventions of what a mime artist is depicting, and it would have been an easy excuse to do it that way and blame confused punters for not understanding the craft. Here, director and actor clearly put a lot of thought into making this easy to follow for a wider theatre audience.

Our story begins where our nameless (and wordless) hero gets up in the morning, stopping off at his favourite spot in the park, before boarding the train to the city. As we will find out, this is a city of nightmares. Not metaphorical nightmares such as the streets rules by gangs or a whole metropolis controlled by sinister businessmen, but literal nightmares where one step through the wrong toilet cubicle could transport you to heaven or hell. All of this is performed with one man on stage and no props other than a chair.

However, I can’t really get any more specific than this plot description, not because I’m withholding spoilers, but because I still lost key parts of the story. Director Des Truscott had some very innovative ways of bringing the story to life, partly through the movement of actor James Cross but also in a large part due to some outstanding lighting and sound. The beautiful climb to the top of the bell tower stuck particularly in my mind, as did the Hades scene towards the end. But for all of their efforts, I’m sure I missed key parts of the plot. I don’t understand, for instance, how he made his way to the toilet on a train but suddenly found himself on the roof, nor did I get what was in his suitcase, only that it was something out of this world. It might be that there isn’t an explanation, and it’s just part of the absurdism. But I’m pretty sure something was lost in scenes such as the job in the shop where I didn’t get what made him have to leave.

It’s difficult to assess this play because I don’t have anything to compare this to. However, I think I’ll give this the thumbs up because they’ve taken one of the hardest art forms to make into a meaningful story and done maybe not a perfect job but still an impressive one. Don’t expect to come out of this with a full understanding of the story if you’re not well-versed in the art of mime yourself, but it’s worth watching as something very different, even by fringe theatre standards.

This is not Culturally Significant want to say a lot of good things about Adam Scott-Rowley’s play that he wrote, directed and performed himself. There’s a lot going for it. He’s written one of the most intricate scripts I’ve seen for a solo play of this length. It covers numerous stories of numerous characters, to many to cover all of them, but the key stories take place upstairs and downstairs in one building. Upstairs is a gay club. Downstairs is a cantankerous old man, express his disgust at the debauchery upstairs, instead preferring the far more wholesome activity of watching a girl on the live sex cam, bullying his downtrodden wife all the time. Scott-Rowley switches between all of the characters and all of the scenes so easily. Like Urban Gothic, he makes heavy use of well-designed lighting and sound, but mostly it’s just acting to change between the characters, making heavy use of excellent voice and facial changes, and never a change of costume.

The issue with the play? When I said he never relies on costume changes, that’s an understatement. He does the entire play in the buff. I am not a prude and I accept there are times when nudity is appropriate in a play provided there’s a good reason why. But I don’t understand what the reason is here. Most of the time he’s playing people with their clothes on. Sometimes being in the nuddy for no reason can be funny, such as Nude Vets in Practice (I advise against Googling this, you don’t want to know). But this? I don’t get it. Sorry.

I know there’s a lot of reviewers who disagree with me over this play, given the plethora of four- and five-star reviews from Edinburgh. I checked some of them to see if there’s something I’m missing; they generally agreed with my good points, but the nakedness was generally taken as a good thing without explanation. I don’t really have any grounds to complain as I took absolutely no notice of the content warnings, but I – and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here – am one of these people who, in this situation, stops thinking about the play and the story and start thinking “Oh, he’s showing us his todger,” or “Right, she’s got her tits out.” Ultimately, this is down to you personal preference. If you think how I think, this play won’t make you think differently. But you don’t see this is an issue at all, I’m confident you’d enjoy this.

Circle Line

This was a departure from normal business at the Vault for two reasons. Firstly, it was in the Network Theatre round the corner. Secondly – and it’s an unusual observation when you think about it – it’s a very rare play at the Vault which is very conventional. No wild concepts, no multimedia wizardry, no intricate choreography, and no shock value; instead, a straightforward script with conventional acting. Part of the reason they’re included is that it’s Network Theatre themselves who are producing this production, and I can guess part of the deal of being a Vault Festival venue was that their own company got to be part of it. But I’m glad that a conventional play is part of the Vault festival, because equally conventional plays at the Brighton or Edinburgh fringes can go on to be major hits if the script is good enough. If nothing else, this is the only play I saw in the entire festival that included older actors.

Circle Line, written by Lisa Pancuci takes place over a group therapy session. Six strangers meet for the first time for group therapy, but with everyone delayed on London’s favourite spiral-shaped misnomer, the specialist supposed to be leading has yet to arrive. With only tea, biscuits, and a harried receptionist, there’s little for the six to do except talk to each other. It starts off as an ordinary chat – but, of course, it can’t be just an ordinary chat, as they are all there for a reason. Amongst the troubled crowd is a middle-aged woman never allowed a life of her own; an young woman with appently everything going for her who secretly can’t control an eating disorder; and maybe the most tragic, a man who uses, shall I say, “colourful” language when addressing the females in the room, perhaps a result of his wife leaving him in the cruellest way possible (or maybe the cause).

(WARNING: Spoilers in next paragraph.)

I really liked the way these characters developed, but there’s not much in the way of plot development. Sometimes you can carry a play on characterisation alone – and I appreciate an important part of the story is the six helping each other when they finally listen to each other’s troubles – but the problem here is that the play builds up to a twist. Without any significant developments to keep me distracted, I saw the end-of-play twist coming a mile off. The scene just before that needs a bit of thought too: if you’re going to have someone threatening to climb out an 8th floor window, you really need to explain why some didn’t just pull her away.

Apart from that question, however, it’s an engaging play that convincingly portrays seemingly ordinary lives on the edge. Some might question whether a play as conventional as this has a place at this kind of festival, but the audience at this near-sold out run clearly thinks it does. There was some room to tighten the plot, and this won’t be remembered as a bold risk-taker, but with most acts vieing to be different from all the rest, it’seems refreshing to see a new play that simply tries to be a play.

Claustrophilia of the three solo plays I saw, this was my favourite, and it’s largely down to the development of the character you see on stage. Alice was kidnapped and kept in a room for three years of her life, and the Alice telling the story now looks fine, perfectly recovered, all behind her … but there’s just subtle things in her mannerisms that suggest she’s not entirely over it. It’s difficult to tell how much of this was down to performer Eleanor Crosswell, director Rebecca Gwyther, or playwright Naomi Westerman, but between they’ve got this down to a tee.

Very little of the play is about the kidnapping himself, and there is no harrowing ordeal recounted on stage. Alice tells us the worst thing he ever did to her falsely tell her her hamster was dead. Rather Alice is angry over the plethora of kindap memoirs ramping the up juicy details as if it’s a form of entertainment. But touch I really liked in the play, as the title cleverly suggests, is that she got too accustomed to her surroundings. She would have escaped a lot sooner if she hadn’t turned back – even in her final successful attempt it takes several phone calls before she decides it’s enough of an emergency to call 999.

So it is with much frustration that I say that this play with so much going for it has a needless hole in the plot. After all the excitement of the escape dies down, Alice is forgotten and ends up on benefits in an obscure bedsit. That fate is plausible, but why oh why didn’t she just go back and live with her parents? I discussed this afterwards, and the reason they agreed in the play development is that she was never that close to her parents, and blamed them for what happened to her. But something that significant can’t be left in the rehearsal room. The more out of the ordinary someone behaves, the greater lengths you have to go on stage to show why, and refusing to go back to your parents after kidnapping is a really big deal that needs explaining.

I hope this is looked at because this play I believe could go a lot further if done right. My suggestion is that if Alice did have a dysfunctional relationship with her diplomat parents, it should be put into the backstory of her pre-kidnap times abroad, which at the moment is a bit out on limb. Claustrophilia was a good play at the Vault Festival, but it’s a good play that could be an excellent play.

Mars Actually play was the reason I picked week 4 for my Vault festival visit. Having seen Superbolt Theatre’s wonderful Jurassic Park (aka Dinosaur Park aka The Jurassic Parks), I wanted to know how their follow-up could compare. Quite a lot of pressure to live up to something so successful.

This time, Maria, Simon and Frode are three Martians who have returned to Earth. Having all been born from human settlers on the Red Planet, they’re currently touring the world as celebrities. Quite a lot of social awkwardness, as you might expect of three people who have never mixed in the company of earthlings. Things amaze them such, wow, did you know you on earth they, like, freeze water and put it in drinks? Who’d have thought it? One lingering puzzle: how did these three actually get back from Mars. But that, together with the title, will be explained later.

One of the things that made Superbolt’s previous show such a smash hit was their creativity, staging and teamwork. This all carries over into their new show with the same top-notch standard. Added to their repitoire of skills this time is a load of musical instruments I never knew they could play, so that a clarinet can be used as a rocket (including, of course, the lower sections of the clarinet falling away one by one). There is, however, a danger to this. When you’ve built up a massive fanbase from your last play who cheer at every showpiece you do, it’s tempting to prioritise the crowd pleasers over the story. For example, great though the choreography was in the dance scene, it didn’t really adds to the story and took up precious minutes in this hour-long production.

This matters because by far the strongest part of the story is what Life on Mars is really like: a project financed by the world’s richest man, also seemingly the world’s biggest control freak. We hear about how all citizens of “Mars” are expected to progress from from Level 1 at birth to the top grade of Level 19 – and if you’re a woman, all they really care about is bringing another Martian into the new world. But I left this play feeling there was more story to be told about this unsettling new order. It’s fair to point out that I’m comparing the extended version of Jurassic Park to an hour-long piece here. If this tours, you can probably expect this one to also be extended, and if so, I hope they take the opportunity to tell more of their brave new world.

Where Superbolt score full marks, however, is for sportsmanship. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another group at a festival go to such lengths to recommend other acts running in the same week. And on their last performance, they were seen handing out doughnuts to all of the Vault staff as thanks for their support. Mars Actually may not be headed for the meteoric success of its predecessor just yet – and it would have been a Herculean task to achieve that – but it’s just as talented performance and you shouldn’t be disappointed.

Blood and Bone

blood_and_bone_680x453_09012017Oh boy. This one is definitely not suitable for the children, though not for the reason you might think. It’s not a blood and guts gore-fest as the title might suggest – instead, blood and bone refers to a type of fertiliser. Because the characters are all puppet plants. And the reason it’s adults only is because there’s a graphic sex scene in it. Yes, between puppet plants. Sweet and innocent Ash meets the raving beauty Rose, and is convinced he’s finally found his “soil mate”. A cynical old garden spade, however, can tell from looking at her that she’s probably riddled with aphids. You get the idea. Don’t sit in the front row.

However, there’s more to the show than the brand of suitably twisted humour. In terms of technical merit, Cicada Studios would give Sparkle and Dark a run for their money here. One key element to good puppetry is to keep attention on the puppets rather than the puppeteers, and this they succeed in doing. They also play various parts themselves, such as the workmen bringing out the dreaded Minne the Mulcher, or open the next scene singing a German pop tune (we know it’s German because the lyrics are “Autobahn Autobahn Uh-uh-uh-uh!” or something like that – I think this related to the drug-addled toadstools who want to be shat on).

What didn’t work quite so well was the political satire. When I commented on the trend to work Donald Trump into anything whether or not the play suited it, this was the one I most had in mind. The key villain is evil tree trunk Donald Stump – however, it looked all the destruction in the play was meant to be a parallel to Trumpian politics. Sadly, these parallels didn’t really make sense. I know that Trump is implicated in all sorts of scandals from walls with Mexico and microwaving kittens to sexual assault and Jedward, but I still don’t know how this was meant to relate to destroying the greenhouse to make way for a hot tub. Easiest thing would be forget about the political satire altogether and just make the comedy work on a different level; if they do want to make a statement about Trump, the story needs more careful planning so that the audience know what relates to what and why.

But in terms of actual enjoyment of the play, that’s only a minor issue, and apart from slightly confused ending, it’s a very very funny play in a festival where acts are far more likely to try to be clever or harrowing. There’s a lot of ways they could develop both this plays and future plays. So watch out Boris and Sergey – you many have a competitor on your hands very soon.

Ventoux off my visit was 2 Magpies theatre with Ventoux, a two-man play set in the world of cycling. It’s the Tour de France 2000, and Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantini, are racing head-to-head up Mount Ventoux. Both men are previous tour winners, both have huge fanbases, Pantini affectionately known as “the pirate”, Armstrong respected for bouncing back after a battle with cancer. Pantini pips Armstrong at the post. After this point, their fortunes wildly diverge. Pantini goes into a spiral of self-destruction, leaving Armstrong as the undisputed king of the wheels. Except, of course, we now know Armstrong, too, was living a lie.

The most striking thing about this play had to be the staging. With the play heavily centred around the cycling, both men are frequently on their bikes, with the open road on a screen in front of them. Some excellent lighting design really adds to the play, as does the music and the real commentary clever worked in. It’s more of a representational set rather that a naturalistic one, and I think that was the right decision – it would have been difficult to sync bikes and background on projector into something that convincing, and it would probably have got tiresome after a while, so I preferred the way they did it with bikes something facing forward, sometimes away, sometimes sideways, but always leaving the audience interested.

As well as the staging, I really liked the performance of Alexander Gatehouse as Lance Armstrong. He did a fine job creating a a man whose became his own worst enemy. Fronting the LiveStrong campaign the champion the cause of other cancer victims, whilst simultaneously enjoying hero status across the world, you can easily see how it nurtured an arrogance that ended up getting the better of him. As doping allegations come to light and he denies them and claim that it’s only everyone else who’s doing it, you can just visualise that what he really thinks is that he’s a hero and cancer survivor, and those rules don’t apply to him.

In most reviews here, I’ve spent the second paragraph talking about the play’s weaknesses, but here we are on the last one because, congratulations, I have nothing to fault with this. Other plays may have room for improvement, but as a finished product this was clearly the strongest. This is on tour right now, including three locations still to come in the north-east, so if you were not in reach of London for the Vault, this is the one to catch now.

And one review of a play not at the Vault …

As well as seven reviews from the Vault festival, I saw one other play in London which,  I was invited to review even though I don’t live in London but, by staggering coincidence, was on whilst I was in London anyway. Here it is …

Three unrelated short plays’ll be honest: my expectations weren’t high. Even if the evening really does consist of three unrelated short plays, Blank Tin productions calling the evening “Three unrelated short plays” didn’t exactly fill me with confidence over creativity. When the paperwork to get a press ticket got lost, I almost didn’t bother chasing it up. I only really bothered because 1) I’d heard of Theatre N16 and wanted to check it out; and 2) confusingly, Theatre N16 is not in postcode district N16 any more, instead being in Balham, conveniently a few stops away from the Vaults on the Northern Line. When I got there, I discovered the three plays were “absudist”, which set alarm bells ringing, not because I have any problem with absurdism, but because absurdism is frequently used as an excuse to make no attempt with character development.

Well, hold on a moment. Three unrelated short plays is actually surprisingly good. Quite a misleading title, the three plays are written by the same author, and although the stories are different, the format is always the same: it begins with a simple situation, and the story gets progressively more ridiculous, ramped up until the ending is always something completely barmy. And crucially – whether the story is two men tied up in a basement, one trying to escape, the other more interested in setting the Sky+ from his mobile which he can do because of his lessons in escapadery, or questioning whether his fellow captive has got already got Stuttgart syndrome; or an evening of drinking to one scotch, one bourbon, one beer which turns out to be a secret ritual to summon God, who indeed turns up in her preferred earthly for of a 16-year-old TOWIE-loving pizza delivery girl; or a man recovering after an evening of drinking to discover when he gets drunk he becomes master-villain Dr. Deathzo, with heroic duo Tape Man and Assorted Props Girl hot on his tail – the audience is always taken along with this silliness. Also expect a lot of in-jokes relating to low-budget fringe theatre production values.

How does this work against all expectations? The trick, I think, is consistency. In unfunny plays with a gag-driven plot, I often find characters doing ridiculous things solely to meet the requirements of the joke. Here, yes, writer James Messer writes a lot of ridiculous characters in the plays, but they are consistently ridiculous, and that, I think, makes all the difference. And Elle Banstead-Salim was an absolute superstar in the play to God/pizza-deliverer and Assorted Props Girl, obviously enjoying her parts too much. I wondered if she’s written the parts for herself, but it was James Messer who’d written them for her, which figures.

This is still a bit rough around the edges. Leaving a crowbar in the room where the two kidnapped men were tied up, for example, was a bit contrived. (You are allowed contrived plot twists in these sorts of plays, but you really need to make the contrivance part of the joke.) I won’t go listing all of them because I’m confident the Blank Tin will work out for themselves what worked well and what could have worked better, the way it should be. But the lesson here is to remember there’s more to London Fringe than the acts that get through the selection process for the Vault Festival – look further, and you could be pleasantly surprised.

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s