What’s worth watching: Vault Festival 2019

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SKIP TO: April, Auntie, Police Cops
A new thing for the blog. I’ve been doing recommendations for Buxton, Brighton and Edinburgh Fringes as long as I’ve been doing this blog, but the Vault Festival (not a fringe as it isn’t open-access, but the closest thing you’ll find to one until sprint comes round) I’ve always done as a footnote for my general winter/spring recommendations. That’s not because I’m giving the Vault a lesser status, but because, up to now, there were very few acts I recognised. But this time, my knowledge of what’s there is big enough to do an article in its own right.

And it’s not, I might add, based on who I’ve seen in previous Vault festivals. I’d heard of a couple of them from the Vault Festival first, but all of these artists I’ve previously seen in Buxton, Brighton or Edinburgh Fringes. Most of the artists in the Vault line-up I’ve never heard of so, as always, please treated this as a cross-section of what’s worth seeing rather than a comprehensive list. But a recommendation of something I’ve seen is not automatic – if it’s in this list, it’s in for a reason.

Safe choice:

Normally, to get into safe choice – meaning something that I’m confident anyone who likes the description will enjoy, and has a wide appeal – a play either has to be one I’ve seen before and loved, or a group doing something new with a strong track record. This time, however, we have two entries in Safe Choice from solo performers I’ve only seen once before, but they are playing to their strengths so much I’m prepared to go with a safe bet.

April

xm2ev12i_400x400I should declare a bias here. Part of the reason I loved Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons so much was how much it appealed to my anti-censorship sentiments. A long-standing tactic of censorship is to paint the thing that offends your moral purity as harmful, and make sure there’s enough public hysteria to prevent anyone actually watching/seeing/reading/play it themselves and making up their own mind. In the 1980s, one popular target was Dungeons and Dragons. Carrie Marx played Pam, a Christian busybody who’s so obviously only done cursory research and didn’t properly understand what she was talking about. But this play appealed on many levels and if you don’t relate to being on the receiving end of these scare campaigns, you might relate instead to Pam’s quietly tragic quest to find a purpose in her life.

However, Hermetic Arts’ primary speciality is horror, and whilst BADD was very much a joke story of imagined Satanism*, Unburied was very much conventional scary horror. I didn’t get to see this, and the description is cryptic, alluding only to the investigation of a 6-part TV series from 1978, whose tapes are mysteriously missing. But whilst I didn;t see this, I have heard overwhelming praise from this from both reviewers, and my own grapesvines. I even considered going to Brighton Horrorfest in November to see this. So now comes a third play, April: April is a sugary-sweet self-help guru. So sugary-sweet, in fact, it’s positively sinister. And the tagline “Together, we can manifest something greater than ourselves” is getting quite scary. This shows on the 20th-24th February at 7.50 p.m. at The Vaults.

* That said, there’s always room for a sequel. Who knows, maybe in BADD 2, Pam will decide it’s only fair to actually play the game. She is surprised to discover she’s enjoying herself and has just decided she’s got it all wrong, when the Dungeon Master informs her she was right the first time, and as she’s up to level 2 it’s time for her initiation ceremony. You can have that idea for free.

Auntie

gemma_arrowsmith_auntie.jpg-480x325Gemma Arrowsmith is heavily promoted in Vault publicity as a scriptwriter for Tracy Ullman. This, I feel, undersells her a bit – whilst I enojyed her scripts, there’s a lot more to her than that. She first came to my attention through the hilarious Two Stars Podcast she does with Susan Harrison where two pretentious incompetent reviewers talk about the arts pretentiously and incompetently. But Gemma Arrowsmith’s main project for the last two years has been Earthling. I don’t normally recommend comedy in a theatre blog, but this impressed me for the way it combined three very acts into one show. Based on the premise that aliens have picked up Carl Sagan’s Voyager Golden record, she switches between: an alien trainer briefing us on earthlings; varies solo sketches of people at various points in their lives; and herself, talking about the fascinating but bizarre story of what got put on the golden record.

I don’t normally promote shows straight to safe choice based on one previous piece, but her follow-up Auntie looks like a safe bet as this plays to all the strengths she showed in Earthling. The Auntie in question here is the nickname for the BBC, and like the Golden Voyager record, the BBC’s story is a fascinating one with so much to love about about it, and yet also so much bizarre politics and moral particularities that shaped much of its 100-year history. This is on at 16th & 23rd February at 4.30 p.m. in the Network Theatre.

Police Cops

https://middlepegreview.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/image57.jpeg?w=302&h=201The Pretend Men certainly don’t my help promoting their show – but I can hardly not mention their smash hit Police Cops, their mega-parody of basically every 1970s Cop TV series ever made, which I saw at Edinburgh in 2016. Expect mismatched cops, idealistic rookies and cyncial old hands, a quest to avenge a father’s death, hunky hunky hunky 1970s hunks and of course a super-dastardly master-villain up to some super-dastardly grand scheme. It’s as if the entire plot of the show is a checklist of every cop show cliche, and – as you have probably already gathered –  that’s pretty much the point of the play.

Police Cops is very much a fun play, so don’t expect any hidden profound messages. What is most impressive, however, is the performance of the cast of three. It’s a flawlessly-executed high-energy highly-choreographed performance which is, of course, funny. Having toured to at least four fringes, there’s been plenty of chances to see this so far, but if you haven’t, or you just can’t get enough of it, there are two more chances on the 31st January and 1st February in a late-night slot of 10.45 p.m.

Also of note:

A reminder that the Vault festival is a big festival, and I only recognise a fraction of the acts, so this is not the place to expect a comprehensive list of what to see. But these four listings are all of interest for one reason or another.

An Audience with Yasmine Day

Yasmine Day is a creation of Jay Bennet, and I saw the original production at Buxton Fringe last year. She is an 80s hit sensation and is closely associated with Liza Minelli, if by closely associated you mean that she has a mate at the video store who once sold Liza Minelli posters at the market, which she does. That is a typical indication of the disparity between how important Yasmine thinks she is and how important she actually is, and whilst some of her routines may seem far-fetched, Bennet assures me that all of these are based on real events, including singing Eternal Flame using only the vowels.

The Buxton premiere was fun, but where there is real potential is in the story of Yasmine herself. It was hinted that Yasmine had been abandoned by her band and never got over this – I am hoping this story has been developed a lot more for the Vault, because that could turn a fun evening into a great story. One performance on the 24th January at 10.50 p.m. at The Vaults.

Get RREEL

I’ve been following Sunday’s Child Theatre over a few Edinburgh Fringes now. It’s the artistic vehicle of Eva O’Connor, who’s written a wide variety of plays. Some have been bigger successes than other, but she has lots of ideas, never gets formulaic, but always makes you think and always keeps a distinctive style of her own. Things got a little bit confusing last year, however, when she had two plays at the Edinburgh Fringe, and the higher-profile one, Maz and Bricks, produced not by her own company but Fishamble productions, even though she was in it.

I didn’t get to see the other play back with Sunday’s Child as the company, but only because it narrowly lost out in my final-day scheduling. But I wish I had, because this looks even more different than before. The story is of the world’s biggest girl band on the brink of collapse, but the format – described as documentary style physical theatre – seems one of their most adventurous. See this at 6th – 10th February at 7.45 p.m. (plus 4.30 p.m. Sunday) at Network Theatre.

Notflix

Again, Notflix needs no introduction from, certainly not now. At the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe, this improvised musical troupe were had a small cult following in one of the smallest spaces in Gilded Balloon. Two years later, they had a large cult following in one of the largest venues. And although I can’t give a definitive verdict without having really seen any other improvised musical troupes to compare them to, they are very very funny and, more impressively, genuinely make up everything on the fly without – as some people might assume – relying on a stock bank of tunes. On the 6th – 10th March at 6.15 p.m. (+ 3.15 p.m. Saturday) at The Vaults.

A Scratch (on the neck [with the tooth of a vampire])

This final one, however, is the most interesting entry. Police Cops was followed up by Police Cops in Space, which was, of course, the same thing except with a checklist of all the corny cliches from 1970s science fiction films. But the next follow-up isn’t another Police Cops show – and that, I think, was probably the right decision: two was about right; a third would mostly likely have overdone the key joke. Instead, we’ve got something a lot stranger: in their words “a gritty northern drama turned vampire-slaying horror flick”. For the full back-story to what looks like a father-and-son-vampire-slaying duo, I’ll direct you to the first paragraph of their Vault Festival page.

This is billed as a work in progress, which is fair enough for something this experimental, so make the usual allowances. As with anyone who’s been lucky enough to have a megahit, the flipside is that you set yourself a hell of job for your followup to live up to the expectations you’ve created for yourself. But this looks promising: it can build on the send-ups and absurdity they’ve already mastered, but move this on to something new. You can see what they have in story on the 15th – 17th March at 10.00 p.m. in The Vaults.

But one final reminder …

That concludes the list. Remember, I only know a small fraction of what’s on offer in the festival – over the eight weeks there will be plenty of fantastic shows I’ve never heard of.

But also remember: the Vault Festival is not the only source of fringe theatre in London. Fringe theatre goes on all year in London. Typically only about 15% of shows that apply to the Vault get programmed – there must be plenty of great shows that don’t get in, and those shows will instead be on offer elsewhere in London but during the Vault Festival and after. When I’ve given a show outside the Vault a chance, I was so glad I did.

I’ll be coming along for the 21st-24th February. If you want me to see you, the usual rules apply. But the invitation applies to everyone performing in London, whether or not you are part of the Vault Festival. There’s a lot of great stuff to see at the Vault – but if you’re doing something great without the Vault’s blessing, I still want to see you.

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