Before this gets too late, let’s wind up all things Vault from my week in London. This time I’ll go straight into the reviews – sometimes there’s some news about the festival as a whole that needs reporting, but this time the Vault festival has pretty much carried on as before. The most notable news, if you count this as news, is that the Vault Festival has stuck with its extension from six weeks to eight weeks, so any doubts over whether the longer festival is viable have pretty much been put to bed now.
Once more, I saw a total of eight plays, plus one music event that was basically a companion performance one of those productions. For anyone who’s counting – yes, two of the plays I saw were duds. I’m currently working to a principle that I don’t write reviews if I can neither say something nice nor say something helpful. In this case, I saw one play that was inexcusably pretentious and incomprehensible, and another play which was a decent idea but the characters sadly lacked any kind of believability – that’s the harder one to watch, because you know there probably was an idea behind this that failed to come across. As always, anyone who knows I saw their play is welcome to contact me for private feedback, whether or not I wrote a public review.
Artists’ personal connections to real story played a large part in what I saw this time. But before that, we shall begin with something that has happened at both Edinburgh and Brighton, but this is the first time it has happened beneath the arches of Waterloo:
This play requires a bit of acclimatisation. It’s billed as a retelling of the famous collection of legends of the Roman gods and heroes, but the last thing you’d expect is to enter a stage set up as a music hall from the Second World War. Then three Andrews Sisters look-a-likes (and sing-a-likes) begin singing the story of creation. If you’re already on the ball, you might work out that in this play, they are playing the Chorus. If not, you should at some point work out the rules of this production: the stories that are narrated are the same as the original, but the story performed on stage may be transplanted to a 1940s equivalent. For example, Cupid is still described as a winged angel with his bow and arrow, but on stage Cupis is a Just William-type schoolboy up to mischief with his love-charged schoolboy catapult. If this sounds confusing, bear with me, I promise. Once you’re used to how the story is being told, it’s superb.
To be rated as an outstanding play here, I normally look for excellent in both an original idea and execution of the said idea. Many times, a great idea in theory fails to deliver in practice. Here, it does it do well I don’t know where to begin. For a start, the 1940s imagery chosen works so well with the legends. The tale of Hermaphordite is now set in the Lido, whilst in the tale of Orpheus in the underworld is now of course The Underground. The settings never bury the stories in silliness though, with Euripides’ death in the blitz just as harrowing as the snake bite. Sometimes the changes go quite far from classical expectations. Echo is now a blabbermouth housewife, but her demise after film-star Narcissus discards her is just as hurtful and cruel. Then there is the technical excellence of the play. Puppetry from characters like schoolboy Cupid is used to great effect, but the projections are even better. Many plays would settle from projection on a screen or a back wall of the stage – here, the flats used for the projectors move about all the time, with actors frequently walking in or out of the moving images.
The master touch, however, is the music. I lost track of who was singing or playing which instrument very early on, but I could swear the entire cast took on both roles at various points in the play. In spite of the constant changeover, Lucy Egger’s incidental music and original songs worked seamlessly. But best of all was the classic songs of the 1940s repurposed for these legends. If there was one thing I didn’t like, it was the way they re-told the story of Theseus; re-imagining Theseus as a shell-shocked patient who navigates a maze in his mind was a novel idea, but one that I thought was trying to be too clever for its own good. But this slight let-down is more than compensated by the rendition of You’ve Changed by a broken-hearted Ariadne abandoned on the island of Naxos.
The backdrop of the 1940s even allows some new angles to be brought into the epic. The prophet Tiresias now ends the epic with his ominous prophecies now mirroring the oncoming shadow of nuclear weapons and environmental destruction. Peter Bramley’s adaptation is truly one of the most innovative and well-executed production’s I’ve ever seen. The only bad news? The last chance to see this may have already come and gone. This is a post-fringe tour of their Edinburgh 2018 run, which in turn is a revival of their original 2010-2011 production.Vault 2019 may have been this play’s swansong. But I hope I’m wrong, and if I am, snap up any chance you can to see this.
Ovid’s Metamorphosis might be the first Vault Festival recipient on my Ike Awards, but the reason I came to this week of the festival is down to Carrie Marx. She has a series of solo play successes under her belt, and I saw and loved Bothered about Dungeons and Dragons where she plays Pam, a Christian busybody embodying 1980s-style public hysteria. Hermetic Arts’ main brand, however, is horror. I didn’t get a chance to see Unburied, but this has done exceptionally well in the reviews I’ve seen. So when I heard about a new play where she plays a YouTube “positive thinking guru”, I had to see this. Something this sickly-sweet has to be sinister, surely. So when the discount code for the play was “notacult” andit began by laughing off jokes about tonight being a mass suicide, that did not disappoint my expectations.
So, what does April teach us about positive thinking? Well, just as much as you’d expect from anyone who calls makes a name for themselves on Youtube and calls themselves a “guru” i.e. nothing. To start with, she says that you can do anything if you put your mind to it. Why did she come on singing a pop star? Because she told herself she can be a pop star and she was. Want to walk underwater or breathe in space? You can if only you believe you can, rather than those scientists with their absurd laws of physics. Then comes a video with a somewhat alarming lengthy digression on what God does to bad people, and her theories get progressively more bizarre until she explains, in a deathly serious tone, how Mr. Blobby (yes, I do mean the annoying pink thing with yellow spots from Noel’s House Party) is a vital piece of the cosmic jigsaw of the universe. As with BADD, there are bonus jokes for anyone who actually understands the things that the lead character gets so wrong, and it was all I could do to stop myself correcting April on her understanding of the second law of thermodynamics. So, no surprises so far.
But there is a surprise coming, and it’s an unexpectedly personal touch. I’ll refrain from saying what it is because I don’t want to give away the spoiler, but it’s only after this point that the most bizarre parts of April’s manifesto makes sense. Including Mr. Blobby. If there’s one thing I think could have been done better in the play, I feel April could have dropped hints to the twist sooner. April is a funny character, but it’s a long time to stretch the joke over an hour. It’s only when we come to the long-awaited mass suicide that we see the first real sign of the true person inside that April is concealing – but more could have been made of this, with perhaps the cracks in April’s persona that appear before then revealing a bit more of her vulnerability.
Unlike BADD, this play, and especially the twist at the end, will be enjoyed best by those people who know Carrie Marx’s circumstances the best, but that is not essential – even without this knowledge, April is a funny play with an edge of pathos of someone who takes to Youtube to make sense of life and loses her way. BADD and Unburied are likely to remain Hermetic Arts’ masterpieces for comedy and horror respectively, but for a personal journey, April is a unique play worth seeing.
Nuala is here to tell you about herself. There are currently two things in life that have her obsessed the most. One is the skull of a woman she finds on an archaeological dig – seemingly someone not that old, evidence later suggesting she was killed for being a witch. The parallel resonates with her, as this nameless woman’s only crime was probably being a bit different from everyone else. Nuala’s other more immediate obsession, however, is Hot Harry, the post-doc with a senior position on the dig and some questionable moral standards. When a dubious encounter with the latter causes her to end up in possession of the former, things get complicated. Nuala has many other obsessions, such as matching socks, the number thirteen, and many other things most of us wouldn’t give a second thought to. Nuala has OCD, and this play is about living with the condition.
Plays about living with a certain condition or being a certain kind of person have become very prevalent in the last few years. This is a bit of a double-edged sword: on the on hand, it’s helped bring awareness to all sorts of issues that people previously didn’t think about; but on the other hand, it means plays such as this have a harder job standing out from the others. Nevertheless, Ladybones has a lot to say on the issue. The most important message: OCD isn’t necessarily the harmless quirk about re-arranging pens than some people take it to be. For Nuala, the obsessions over trivial matters can easily overwhelm her and push her into depression – and the possibility that depression becomes suicidal is never far away.
OCD is not the only topic here – when things get bad and Nuala retreats homewards, she has her sister there, who has Down’s Syndrome. Preconceptions are challenged here too – a less imaginative story would have put her on the scrap heap, but that’s not the case here. If there’s one area where this play is weak, it’s the thin storyline, with the stakes at the end not much higher than getting the right prop for a play. This doesn’t matter too much as this play is heavily based on character first and plot second; however, a course of events that keeps people interest and keeps people guessing would help this be remembered. But it’s worth remembering, because the way this challenges the reality of OCD against assumptions is an important thing to say.
Howard has finally found a calling in life. After years of dead-end jobs that get nowhere, he’s hit upon the idea of being a celebrant. At the time when friends and family of the deceased are at their most distraught, it takes a man with a silver tongue to deliver a fitting eulogy to the dear departed. So successful is Howard, in fact, that he’s in demand all over the country, packing in lucrative funerals into his busy schedule.
There’s one interesting twist to this play – and I’m honestly not sure whether or not this was intentional. But intentionally or not, it works well. As well as being on the best celebrants in the business, Howard also drinks heavily and never wants to stick around after delivering the eulogy. That, to me, suggested Howard is a bit of a sleazebag who ruthlessly makes money out of people at a vulnerable time in their lives. Until we discover the real, more understandable, reason for the drinking and the need to avoid the wakes.
This play was supported by the The Institute of Professional Celebrants and is part of the Let’s Talk intiative to get people to talk about death and bereavement. Like Ladybones, however, the focus on raising awareness of a single issue comes at a price – there wasn’t that much of a story to keep people interested and guessing. Good though the twist is when we discover what Howard is running away from, it feels like there needs to be something else in the plot to sustain interest over the hour-long monologue. As a campaigning tool to get people talking more openly about the hardest subject, this play does the job well, but the more memorable this story is, the more memorable the message behind the play will be.
Pants on Fire might be the leader for best play, but out of all the groups I saw at the Vault, RedBellyBlack is the one that shows the most promise. Last year I heard a lot of praise for OK, Bye, but this was my first chance to see what they do with their follow-up, Tacenda. This was on the subject of choosing to sugar-coat your words rather than saying what you mean. As such, I was a bit sceptical, as it could have been a clichéd performance about Taking No Crap™, but I needn’t have been. This does not disappoint.
Joy and Elizabeth are two friends whose circumstances have dictated the same flat (and same bed). Today is a crunch day for both of them. One of them has a meeting to sign up a reluctant recruit to a cause dear to her; the other is in a struggle to stop her music practice rooms to be converted to even more computer rooms. However things turn out, they have a friend’s party in the evening that descends to various levels of chaos. And if things don’t work out, Joy and Elizabeth must live the same day again until things do. But it’s not a simple matter of Taking No Crap™ – indeed, the day that approach is tried is the day with the most disastrous results. If anything, the take-home message of the play is to pick your battles wisely. It’s what Joy and Elizabeth say to each other that really matters – where they are open and upfront, they are at their strongest.
Tacenda is not without its flaws. The play has a lot to say over the hour, but I can’t help thinking that not everything they wanted to say comes through. I couldn’t quite work out exactly what the meeting was meant to be about. Based on my interpretation of the script, one party wanted an unspecified company to single-handedly provide free sanitary products to all women in the country and the other party made every argument against the idea except the obvious one over cost – but I’m sure that wasn’t what the play meant. Also, nicely choreographed though the interlude between days three and four was, I couldn’t work out what if anything that was meant to be depicting. If any messages didn’t come across, though, it doesn’t really matter, because there were plenty of messages that did.
RedBellyBlack are getting a lot of praise for the quality of their devised theatre, particularly the choreography, and that is deserved, but one thing where I think they’ve been under-rated is writing a time play. Most people don’t appreciate how difficult it is to run the same scene several times in a play: make the first scene too simple, and the subsequent run-throughs swiftly become predictable and dull; but if you complicate the first scene in order to keep interest in the later scenes, you risk making the first scene impossible to follow. Tacenda avoids both these pitfalls and the writing needed to do this is cleverer than most people credit it for. One trap that I hope RedBellyBlack don’t fall into? Trying to be too clever – it would be a crying shame if they make the mistake that countless other devised companies make and create stuff that makes sense to them but not the audience. If they don’t fall into this trap, RedBellyBlack’s Vault festival plays could be just the beginning.
And the last play, as it turned out, was the headline play that the festival organisers have been banging on about: an immersive theatre production about the Ukranian revolution of 2014. This is a little from the Vault Festival’s headliner and mega-success from two years ago, The Great Gatsby, which was an entirely immersive production. In this one, you can be an “observer” or a “protestor”, and if you want to take part in the immersive action you’ll need to pay a little extra for the protestor ticket. However, unlike Gatsby, which would be nothing without the immersive element, here you get the best view of what’s happening from the observer seats. Which experience suits you better is really down to you.
One thing you should be aware of with Counting Sheep: this is produced by Belarus Free Theatre, and both the company and the writers are 100% on the side of the Euromaiden protestors. As always, political theatre of this nature should always be treated as one side of the story rather than the whole picture, although I don’t seriously expect anyone’s mind is going to be changed by an immersive from any Putin fanboys now that most of the idiots who swallowed Putin’s bullshit are finally wising up. What is does mean, however, is that you won’t learn in this play is what kept other Ukranians loyal to Yanukovych. But if that was to be included in Counting Sheep, that would have it a different play. There is a place for a play that explores that subject, but this is not the one.
Counting Sheep is a very different type of immersive from the one Great Gatsby veterans are used to. There isn’t the multi-location multiple path format that made The Guild of Misrule’s play a masterpiece, but in other ways Belarus Theatre excels in ways that their counterpart doesn’t. The task of rearranging the stage from a peaceful meal to the barricades in Mariinsky Park must be a staggeringly complex one in any play, never mind one with dozens of audience/protestors to work around. One thing that might seem a bit odd at first is that, whilst many plays about revolutions will have stories of multiple eye-witnesses, this only has the stories of two people. But there is a good reason for this, I promise.
The clincher, however, is the live music. Mark and Marichka Marczyk are both the writers and the musicians, and their musical act, Balaklava Blues is an outstanding performance in its own right – in fact, it was their music that persuaded me to go to it in the first place. (And if you see the play first, an hour of the msuic afterwards is the perfect follow-up.) If The Doors is the iconic soundtrack to the Vietnam War, Balaklava Blues could easy be considered the soundtrack to the Ukranian revolution. The music is performed on stage by Mark and Marichka throughout the play – I’m guessing the production was planned around the music rather than the other way round, but either way, it fits perfectly. However, the music is more integral to the production than you think – but if you don’t know the personal connection, it’s better to discover for yourself at the end.
Counting Sheep is a campaign first and theatre production second, but it was nevertheless worth seeing as a very different type of immersive theatre. The bad news is that the run at the Vault Festival may be the last chance for a long time – I believe the last time this ran was the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. So until futher notice, you may have to settle for the music, which is a great album in its own right. The Vault Festival had to be the perfect place to host this for two months. I hope this is not the last we hear of it.