I know I already have two unfinished articles on the go, but I’ve got to hury out this one because the Vault Festival has begun. And now that I know enough about who’s coming to pick some recommendations, I’d better get a move on before they’re gone.
First, a reminder of what the Vault Festival is about. It is, as some people acclaim, London’s answer to the Edinburgh Fringe? Well, yes and no. It is true that the work on offer in the Vault Festival is quite similar to what you see on the Fringe circuit – indeed, a lot of stuff goes to both – but unlike the Fringe, it’s a curated festival instead of an open festival. And, in all fairness, it’s couldn’t work as anything but an open festival, with applications outstripping capacity something like 6:1. It you’re after an environment where anyone can put on a play and you can choose what you want to see, it’s better to think of the whole of London throughout the year as the “London Fringe”. But if you’re after the festival atmosphere, the Vault Festival is the closest thing you’ll find in the winter months.
For anyone coming to the Vault for the first time, apart from understanding what kind of festival this is, there’s only two things you need to know. Firstly, it’s an evening-only festival on weekdays (not surprising as the bulk of the audience will be coming from work) running Wednesday-Sunday. Secondly, you think Edinburgh Fringe tickets are expensive? Welcome to London. Rest of it you’ll pick up as you go along. For Vault Festival veterans, the biggest change I’ve noticed this year is that they’ve moving away from classifying everything as theatre, comedy or lates and instead adapting a wider list of categories like the fringes to. There should be no more shoehorning of musicals and spoken word into theatre or comedy.
Big disclaimer: this is not a comprehensive list of what to see, just the ones that I know about. This caveat applies to all fringes but especially applies to the Vault Festival, where I’ve only heard of a small fraction of the acts that are on there. I’m also leaving out perennial comedy returners (Dark Room, Notflix and the MMORPG show) as they have more than enough publicity. Other than that, this is a single list. Some I wholeheartedly recommend seeing, others I don’t know much about but I consider notable. So this year it turns out I’ve quite a northern-heavy list.
One of the big news stories from the north-east is Northern Stage’s “takeover” of Vault. I reported on this back in December, and (depending on what the new artistic director of Northern Stage chooses to pursue) may replace the Edinburgh Fringe as their preferred presence. But right now I’m only interested in reporting which of these is worth seeing, and the easy pick from here is Bonnie and the Bonnettes. “Bonnie” is the stage name of Cameron Sharp, and their first play, Drag Me To Love, was his story of moonlighting in Doncaster when he was fourteen. The story was mostly told in a very funny way, and the ending was unexpectedly poignant.
However, they are bringing their follow-up play to the Vault: And She, a play about their mothers. I haven’t managed to see this yet so I don’t know how this compares to their debut, but Northern Stage clearly thought highly enough of this one to pick it over their successful first play. Whatever is in store, Bonnie and the Bonnettes is one of the most memorable acts in the north-east, with the ensemble of three all bringing individual characters to the fore. This is on the 8th & 9th February at 6.10 p.m.
Northern Stage isn’t the only Newcastle Theatre turning their attention south instead of north. Live Theatre’s co-production with The Paper Birds is also heading London’s way as part of its tour. The Paper Birds have toured many productions before, but by far the most memorable one was Mobile, a piece of verbatim theatre done inside a caravan with some amazing staging.
Ask Me Anything is just as ambitious, but in a different way. The group asked teenagers from all over the country to write in with questions they have about anything. This means the play has to cater to two very different audiences: teenagers wanting to prepare for the less predictable world of adulthood, and the rest of us who see how things have, or have not, changed for teenagers. It’s currently running at Live Theatre, and I haven’t seen it yet, but I saw the preview last summer that was promising. It’s at it s strongest, however, when they do their innovative staging, and not just making up stage plus auditorium to look like a teenager’s bedroom. See this on 7.15 p.m. on the 11th – 15th February.
This one is on my list as something that is interesting and different. When the Vault Festival expanded out of the space under Waterloo station, one venue they took on was the Network Theatre, a nearby amateur theatre. As part of the bargain, they get a slot of their own in the festival. Far from the village hall production from Hot Fuzz, Network Theatre put up a good standard against the professionally-trained actors that dominate the festival. The one thing that does stand out is that their plays are relatively safe compared to what you usually see here. And I like that – in a festival where so many people are scrabbling to be the next best thing with something innovative and different from everyone else, it’s a refreshing change to have a group that stays conventional.
It’s not entirely in the comfort zone – Network Theatre still take on new writing of their own here, and this one is a collection of short-stories set in the near future, drawing, we are told, on Black Mirror, Margaret Attwood and Killing Eve. This shows on the 18th – 23rd February at 7.45 p.m. in the Network Theatre.
The Pretend Men had an unexpected hit in 2015 with Police Cops, a parody of basically every 1970s TV cop show ever made. It’s almost like they sat down with a list of every cop show cliche ever used and worked it in into one hour, with a highly energetic show that earned them praise and sell-out Edinburgh Fringe runs. This was followed up with Police Cops in Space, a parody of basically every 1970s TV sci-fi show ever made, which is almost like they sat down with a list of every sci-fi show cliche ever etc. etc. But where do you go from there? There is a downside to the smash hit. Keep going with the same and eventually your audience tires of it. But do something too different and you lose the thing that built your following in the first place.
Well, they’ve gone for a mashup in what seems to be the format of Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights. But instead of our kick-ass martial arts hero teaming up with a cowboy or a knight, he’s apparently teaming up with a rave-loving dude from Madchester. I’m not suer the timeline quite matches up here, but to be fair, neither did the Jackie Chan films. I didn’t manage to see this at Edinburgh but the reaction was very positive. They’ve just finihsed a run at Soho Theatre, but you can catch them again on the 18th – 21st March at 9.15 p.m.
Now for another play I’ve not seen but I’ve heard a lot about. Skank is on my list because this is a showcase of what we may be seeing a lot more of in the future: the rapidly rising fringe theatre scene in Manchester. In the last few years, Manchester has become noted for both a year-round fringe theatre scene similar to London’s, and an open festival fringe similar to Edinburgh/Brighton/Buxton/etc. So get used to this – we can expect Manchester to have a lot more influence on fringe theatre inside and outside festival season in the future. (This particular play started off in Yorkshire, but it was in Manchester where this really got its name.)
Kate dream of being a successful writer but ends up spending all her energy to try to shag Sexy Gary. Skank is billed as a “Tesco value northern Fleabag”, although the trailers I’ve seen look like the altogether more excruciating humour of Peep Show. It also seems, like the famous play it compares itself to, there’s a lot more Kate’s character than this, and there’s an underlying theme of insecurity throughout this. It’s on the 14th & 15th March in The Horse and Stables at 7.00 p.m.
Most of my Vault Festival recommendations come from elsewhere, but my last recommendation is on the strength of a group’s performance same time same place last year. I really liked RedBellyBlack’s Tacenda last year, a cleverly-crafted tale where the same day is played over four times, until the two women involved correctly choose the right battles to pick. The real strength in this, however, was their devised theatre making. I’m used to a high standard of devised theatre, this ensemble of three executed it perfectly.
So this year they are doing a play about the heatwave on July, when the temperature reached 39 degrees (except for me – I was in Florence that day and it was 42 degrees, you wimps). The Beano character embarking on his quest to destroy the country in a hilarious slapstick accident may or may not feature in this, but otherwise they’re not giving many clues away. On the 10th – 15th March at 7.30 p.m.
And there’s your list. I’m going to be around on the 14th-15th and 21st-22nd March. Looking forward to seeing how these do.