Apologies for putting this off – there were a couple of exceptional Ike-winning plays that jumped the queue, but let’s round up what I saw in the Vault festival. Unlike previous festivals, I won’t do any lengthy preamble, because there’s not much change from 2017. The Network Theatre and Waterloo East continue to be satellite venues, and the box office has still sorted out the organisational issues from 2016 (in fact, the venue as a whole runs pretty smoothly). Not quite the same number of Trump jokes this time (I guess last year exhausted the plentiful supply out there), and nothing dominating the buzz the way that immersive Gatsby did last year, but the one change I am so pleased to see is that finally the Vault Festival has installed wi-fi that actually works. Lord be praised.
Seriously, however, one notable change is that Vault 2018 ran for eight weeks, up from six. The good news from this is that they must be confident with the financial state of the Vault to expand like this (and my anecdotal observation is that numbers seemed to hold up fine over the longer period). It does mean, however, that we could reach the point where the Vault could become too powerful and turn into the gatekeepers of who can make it on the London fringe circuit. I don’t think we are at this point yet, and I have no reason to believe the managers of the Vault want to misuse their power, but keep asking questions. With great power comes great responsibility.
Enough of that. Let’s get started. So I saw my usual eight pieces over the course of four days, but only four of them could really be considered plays. Out of those, one of them I won’t review in line with me practice of generally not badmouthing stuff I don’t like (suffice to say this currently is in the lead for this year’s “How the hell did that get five stars?” award). But the dud aside, the remaining three were at a very high standard.
I recommended this play on the strength of the 2015 run at the Edinburgh Fringe, and this version at Vault 2018 is just as good as I remember it. It’s the last thing I’d have expected to want to see again; as a rom-com, it’s equal only to the zombie acopolyse as most over-used genre. Bump! even follows the most over-used genre of Boy Meets Girl, love at first sight, get it on, the relationship hits crisis, then it’s sorted out for the finale. And yet it stands outs for Buckle Up Theatre’s superb combination of a sharp script and innovative choreography over the hour.
This has been reworked since the 2015 Edinburgh run, but I must admit my memory has failed me for once, because Andrew and Oriana had to tell me afterwards which scene was the completely new one. As such, I can’t make a fair comparison to the old version, but the new one fits into the story nicely, where an accidental meeting causes all the half-truths they told each other to catch up. Even if you think you’re sick to death of rom coms, see this one, because this goes to show how anything can stand out from the crowd given the right kind of creativity and hard work.
Margaret Thatcher: Queen of Soho
Ask anyone about the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, and they’ll tell you her most notorious legacy was Section 28. There again, ask anyone about Margaret Thatcher and they’ll tell you she served as Prime Minister until she was forced to resign following a leadership challenge from Michael Heseltine in 1990, then gradually withdrew from public life until her death in 2013. Fake news, sheeple, we know the truth. She changed careers and has been a gay nightclub hostess ever since, beloved by both gay men and miners. And gay miners. With big bushy moustaches.
Okay, taking this slightly more seriously, Margaret Thatcher is actually Matt Tedford, in a tale that takes a few liberties with history. Maggie starts off as the caricature of the woman everybody loves to hate (the joke where she offers someone in the front row some milk goes as you’d expect), but if this what you want from the whole hour, you may be disappointed. There are two competing narratives for the Thatcher years, one portraying her as a demon worse than Hilter and Pol Pot combined, and the other portraying her as the saviour of Britain and civilisation itself. This play does not embrace either of those.
Instead, we get a satirical commentary into the politics of the day that surrounded section 28, which went way beyond one person. The villain in this play isn’t Thatcher (either the real one or the Soho one). It’s not even Tories in general. No, the deepest derision is reserved for the peddlers of public hysteria, and it eviscerates the moral panic that led to Section 28. Even if you don’t remember this particular episode, you will probably recognise something like this where an inoffensive thing – that lots of people have heard of but few people actually understand – is blown out of all proportion.
Oh yes, and it’s also hilarious. I won’t spoil the moment when Mrs. T. braces herself herself to read the sinister Gay Book that corrupts everyone who reads it with its Gay Propaganda, but it’s a comedy gem. One the whole, however, this is something I think serves as an important lesson. I’ve seen a lot of political “satire” which does little more than aim plays at audiences of one mindset and spoon-feed them views they already have. They may sell well, but they get forgotten. Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho, on the other hand, said something different, and it’s run for years.
This title was one of the most confusing titles for a play. Not the relevance to the play, as such, more embarrassing conversations along the following lines:
Actor I’m randomly chatting to: So what are you seeing here?
Me: I’m seeing You.
Actor: Great! Can’t wait to see you in the audience.
Me: Oh sorry, I meant the play called “You”.
Actor: Right … I see … No, that’s fine. You enjoy that play.
[Anecdote may be more embellished than actual event.]
But I finally got the work out who this “you” is. It’s the word used to describe an adoptive child. At first, we hear the word from the child’s mother, now made contact through the adoption contact register, and she waits to see her adult son for the first time since he was a baby. She begins with her own story of being pregnant at 15 and the reaction from her parents. But that is only one piece of the jigsaw. There are many other stories that intersect with the life of this child. Next there’s the story of the father. Then comes the adoptive parents. To the birth mother, they’re only known as “some couple from the university”. But they have their own story. A very separate story, bu no less detailed.
There are no twists in this play, no hidden secrets revealed of anyone’s past, no unexpected sting in the tail. That’s not the point of this play – its purpose is simply to describe in intimate detail the trials and tribulation of all the people whose lives made this child. What this play does have, however, is lots of empathy. One one side, it’s the slow goodbye as the child is taken away, then social workers say how the child’s doing, then nothing. On the other side, there’s the pain of losing two children to miscarriages and the insecurity that you’ll never be proper parents. How much of the child’s character comes from the birth parents and adoptive parents? Something they all want to know.
So no surprises with this review. It’s already been running for a few years with huge acclaim, and seeing it myself it’s easy to see why. Sometimes, a play doesn’t need to be that new, or daring. It simply needs to pick up an issue few people talk about and understand it with compassion and humanity, and for that reason it’s thoroughly deserving of its praise.
Not quite theatre
One quirk I’ve noticed about the Vault festival is that, unlike all the major festival fringes, there are only two categories: theatre and comedy. I’m not sure why they do that – there might be separate processes for curating theatre and comedy, so if anyone understands this better than me feel free to explain – but the net effect of this is that I end up seeing a lot of stuff under theatre that’s really something else. As such, I’m not the best person to give a verdict, but it makes a change and I’ll give it a go.
The MMORPG show
In a show that takes more liberties that most in a title, it’s not online, it’s not massive multiplayer (unless your definition of massive includes the number “3”), and it’s only loosely modelled on any known role-playing game. Possibly Dungeons and Dragons, but with spells and special abilities suggested by the audience. So if you’re magic-user, instead of Fireball of Deathly Doom you may have to make do with a spell that temporarily turns things yellow. On a heist, if you’ve got to get through a door guarded by monkeys (also suggested by the audience) you might not have be able to steal their gold, but perhaps you can steal their girlfriend. Will you succeed? Only one way to find out, throw a d20. As we all know, 20 is the really good outcome, 1 is the bad outcome.
This is another mad creation of Paul Flannery, best known for Knightmare Live. It’s a lot more improvised, but if you’re a fan of one you can expect to be a fan of the other. The MMORPG Show, however, is more specialist nerd taste. Even if you never saw Knightmare in the early nineties, you can pick that show up as you go along. If I lost you when I mentioned the d20, you’ll probably get lost here too. But hey, now’s a good time to learn Dungeons and Dragons (or, if you prefer, the sister game Apartments and Accountants). Once you know what XP are, come back and this’ll be the show for you.
This was under the theatre section, but anywhere else this would be firmly in the spoken word category. It’s a storytelling piece; I’ve reviewed a lot of more theatrical storytelling pieces, and I still rave about The Bookbinder, but here we have just Brice Stratford sitting on a seat telling a story. I actually recognised one of these stories: a history of the founding of London. Well, when a say “a history”, this is the kind of history practiced in the Middle Ages where they just accepted stuff as fact without thinking to check if there’s any actual evidence to back this up. I’m pretty we’ve debunked the version of history where after the siege of Troy – you know, the one with the wooden horse – Brutus and his Trojans sail the seven seas, discover England, and rid the land of giants. But we’ve moved on now. Surely no-one today takes unverified events as indisputable fact, just because an old book says so?
Sorry, I digressed there. Where were we? Ah yes. So, it’s difficult for me to give a meaningful verdict on this as I don’t really have any straight storytelling to compare this too. However, Brice delivered the stories well without needing any bells and whistles. One touch of this I particularly liked was the was the stories were linked. Story 2 has a beginning completely unrelated to the somewhat bleak ending of story 1 where the 32 remaining princesses looked set for a sticky end. But this is just a chapter in a saga that leads to another story, then another, then another. There’s also a bit of humour worked in – those of you who know the tales will appreciate the line “It’s a good job we’ve got a giant-killer with us.” I’ll leave it to others to give their scores, but from someone new to this format, this looks like a good introduction.
Doktor James’s Bad Skemes
This one, however was the reason I picked Week Four to come, along with Bump! It’s too far down the comedy road to be considered theatre, but I finally saw this at Brighton last year, and cone on, who doesn’t want to an hour with the world’s worst superhero. That’s worst as in most evil, not worst as in most rubbish, like that lying superhero brother James-Man says.
The reason I was most keen to see the follow-up to Doktor James’s Academy of Evil was that the first show set up for so much more. James-Man might be the hero but he’s far from the good guy, using his superpower to Skype people without their permission to put his twin brother down. Now, in the sequel, the Doktor also has to contend with a new nemisis, arch-villain Doktor Jane, number 1 villain on the villain leaderboard and worse, someone James-Man blatantly has a crush on. With Doktor James number 10 billion on the last, 3 billion more than the population of the earth, can he and Timion the Minion turn things round?
This is supposed to be a children’s show, but the performance I went to had one child and the rest were adults, who loved the show as much as any child. It’s a tough call, on the one hand it’s something I wish more children would see, but on the other hand, how many grown-ups want to pass up the chance to be Doktor James’s clone? This performance at the Vault was a bit scrappy in places (not that it really matters because it all adds to the uselessness of this incompetent supervillain), but with a Brighton run coming up in half-term week and possibly an Edinburgh run after that, there’s plenty of time to see this yet. Children definitely optional.
Once again, this was something in the theatre section that wasn’t really theatre, but this stuck in my mind because it’s a format I don’t think I’ve seen before: musical storytelling. Isobel Rogers with her guitar plays a series of songs of Elsa’s day. She works in a coffee shop where people drop in, all with their own stories. A common theme throughout the stories is the obsessions of millennials. Often a straightforward event isn’t enough now – it’s more about prying into other people’s lives, or careful image management on multiple social media accounts. Even Elsa herself is part of this – in her own song of “Intragram boyfriend”, she wants a boyfriend partly for love and companionship, but far more that she’ll be able to upload far better candid photos of herself if a boyfriend can take it over the limitations of selfies. (N.B. I reckon I’d be quite good at taking photos if anyone wants to put up an advert for this. Everything else about the relationship will probably be an utter disaster, but at last you’ll get some decent photos out of it.)
Again, not in a good position to judge as this is too different to be able to compare this to anything else, but it’s a charming enough hour. The only detail of the story I’d tweak was the rap in the middle which – if I understood the story correctly – she does on the table, and everyone carries on like nothing happened. Better to make this something she imagines she’s doing. The next major stop for this is Brighton Fringe, so I’ll keep an eye out for this, because this will be an interesting wildcard.
And one from last year’s Vault …
However, the highlight of the London visit for the Vault festival wasn’t a Vault play. Not this year anyway. But it was a big hit at last year’s Vault, had another run in June, and got extend, extended and extended again, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to see this again.
The Great Gatsby
The Guild of Misrule’s immersive production of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic ran all six weeks of Vault 2017 and sold out the entire run. It was a common sight during that festival to see plenty men in DJs an women dress as Jitterbugs queuing for the Crescent. Not wanting to be a party pooper, I made sure I brought my own DJ for this. But might this just have been a success for the novelty of dressing up for the 1920s? The answer, I can now say, is an unequivocal no. It’s more than a novelty. Far more.
So good was this play, this play get a whole review to itself, and I wrote it straight after coming back from Vault. The short version: it’s faithful to the story, adapts well to the immersive setting, and the interaction with the audience is executed perfectly. But the thing that makes this outstanding is the numerous different stories going on at the same time. Characters assemble and split up all the time, and characters split off, so does the audience. Depending on who you follow, you may see the entire story, faithful to book as narrated by Nick Carraway, or you might see the stories of other characters devised by the company. Whatever you see, however, fits together to make a whole story.
Can the Vault Festival take credit for this? It’s certainly true that the original run gave the Guild and Misrule a huge boost, but we will never know how this would have fared had the Vault festival not been there. Nevertheless, the fact that something that began there is still running a year later is a big feather in the Vault’s cap. And as long as production like this choose the Vault to get started, this festival looks very secure in its future.