Skip to: All Falls Down, Salamander, Experiment Human, Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name, Finlay and Joe, Isobel Rogers, Lachlan Werner, Hide, Notflix, The Dark Room, Criminally Untrue
One year ago, the Vault Festival suffered what was surely the worst possible disaster: with days to go before opening night, the whole festival was cancelled. It was very very very bad news for two reasons. Firstly, with Vault 2021 also cancelled, there was a clear three years between Vault festivals, with no guarantee that the community built up over the 2010s would still exist by the end of it. Worse, however, was the timing. 2021 was at least a planned cancellation; 2022, however, was supposed to be the big relaunch. Financially speaking, the last thing you want to do is cancel a large-scale event after doing all the up-front expenses.
Very easy to say this in hindsight, but an underground festival in London in the winter of 2022 never struck me as a good idea. Had they played it safe and gone for March-May 2022, I reckon it would have survived – but I don’t see how they could have postponed everything at the last moment. In different circumstances we could have been talking about one error of judgement that brought down one of the best loved festival of fringe theatre in the country … But – we are not. Vault 2023 is going ahead, and from the sound of things, it’s going to be as if nothing’s happened. Either Vault has deeper pockets than we realise, have good cancellation insurance up their sleeve, or they have a generous backer come to rescue we don’t know about. Whatever the reason, it’s back to business.
So this means it’s back to business for me too. I’ll shortly be going into my list of recommendations, but first, a recap on what to expect.
What to expect at Vault 2023
Firstly, a welcome to everyone new to my coverage. If you are one of the people interested in going to this festival because it’s like the Edinburgh Fringe, that’s only partly true. Many of the shows you can see at the Vault Festival have been to the Edinburgh Fringe, others will go, and almost everything on offer would fit into Edinburgh or Brighton Fringes. But the important difference is that this is a heavily curated festival, and not the inclusive festival such as Edinburgh or Brighton where everyone can take part. As soon as you have any sort of curation, you always have arguments over what’s fair, and who does and doesn’t deserve their slot.
The Vault Festival can’t run as anything but a curated festival – there simply isn’t the space to accommodate everyone who applies. They have their own views on what selection process is fair – I’ll leave it up to you to decide if you agree. But this is the closest thing you’ll get to the spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe in the winter, so come along or wait for Brighton in May. Your choice.
One other thing to be aware of is that on weekdays, Vault doesn’t open until 5 p.m. or thereabouts. It’s not like Edinburgh Fringe where you can go hardcore are start in the morning. Weekends tend to get going in mid-afternoon. And it’s closed completely on Monday – nobody I know has made the schoolboy error of turning up on a Monday, but don’t let it be you.
For those who have been before, there are some new things to be aware of:
Passes: One thing that was supposed to be introduced in last year’s ill-fated festival was passes, but this idea has been rolled over to this year. And – I have to say – these look pretty good value for money. And if you’re treating this like a festival fringe and going to multiple performances over a period of days, the standard Festival Pass looks like an excellent deal. £49 covers four tickets (except the expensive low-capacity events), four drinks, and 10% off any additional tickets.
I presume the reason for introducing this pass is to encourage punters to indeed treat Vault more like Edinburgh Fringe rather than only come for a one-off. If that is the case, this looks like a good plan.
Programming: One decision made early on was to programme the big spaces less intensively. Previously, it had worked like most Edinburgh Fringe venues with turnarounds as tight as 15 minutes – but for the bigger spaces, when there’s a lot to take on and off stage, this was considered to be too risky in terms of safety. Having overseen many gets-ins and get-outs myself, I think this was a reasonable decision. What this might mean is that there will be fewer larger-scale shows on offer, although as I don’t actively see what’s on in the large spaces, I couldn’t tell you if there’s a noticeable difference.
Where I might have spotted a change, however, is a rise in short runs. In previous years, it was normal to run a full week, either Wednesday to Sunday or (more recently) Tuesday to Sunday. One-off performances felt very much the exception. However, I’m sure there’s a lot more performances running only one day this time round, either as a one-off or several in the same day. In addition, there do seem to be a fair number of shows that are 8.30 on weekdays but 8.00 weekends. Someone with better data is welcome to do the number-crunching here, but the main take-home is to not assume something that was showing on Wednesday will still be showing at the same time on Sunday, even if you’ve got away with that in the past.
Expense: With three years of inflation, now’s a good time to remind you of this: you think Edinburgh Fringe is expensive? The Vault Festival is worse. Welcome to London. Most of the shows I’ve seen so far have tickets starting at £13. And when I say “start at”, I’m referring to their payment scheme. You’ve heard of “Pay what you can”? Let me introduce you to “Pay more if you can.” I’m broke, so I won’t consider myself able to pay more. Will anyone feel well off enough to splash out extra? This seems optimistic to me. But, who knows, maybe hedge fund managers are regulars. We’ll see, anyhow.
Getting there: And finally, Londoners probably know this already, for for outsiders, some good news. If you have been to previous Vault festivals, you’ll know it was a bit of a faff to actually get from Waterloo tube to the vaults under the station off Leake Street. You either had to leave through the north of the station and walk a long way round, or cut through the station on a really impractical route involving plenty of stairs. However, thanks to a new tube station entrance on York Road, it’s now a little bit easier. Might take some getting used to, but once you have the journey should make a bit more sense.
Vault festival picks:
Having been out of the loop with London theatre for three years, I wasn’t expecting to see many performers I recognised. However, in the end, the list grew quite long. Most of the stuff I recognise isn’t theatre though, so once again I’m keeping everything in one list rather than doing the usual split into safe choice and bold choice.
Remember, though, I’ve only seen a fraction of what’s in the Vault programme. As such, this should be considered a cross-section of what’s worth seeing rather than the definitive list. There is always at least one thing I’ve never heard of at every festival that wows me. With the caveat noted, here’s when i have for you:
All Falls Down
I saw Chronic Insanity at Brighton Fringe in 2021 with the somewhat unusual bearded/cross-dressing/regicide-themed Polly, a Drag Rebellion, but what’s continued to grab my attention is the variety of weird and wonderful ideas they have for performances. Whilst I didn’t make it to 52 Souls at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, I heard goof reports from other reviewers on the idea of 52 stories ready to be told depending which cards are chosen from the pack.
This one looks to be pushing the boat out even further, with survivors from a plane crash and stranded in the wilderness trying to re-establish contact with civilisation – with the audience’s action’s apparently decided how the story plays out. This shows at various times over the 24th – 28th January (at least twice per day), but being an interactive low-capacity event this is one of the pricier ones.
This was a play that I saw at Edinburgh Fringe which narrowly missed out on my Pick of the Fringe list – but it’s still a decent play worth seeing. Set in Leith in the early 1980s, it follows the earliest days of reaching out to sex workers, after the murder of one prompts the Police to realise they can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. The main dynamic of the play is four women distrustful of authorities looking out for each other, but there was also a poignant addition of Joan, the representative of the local church desperate to help to the people her friends and neighbours look down on.
Unfortunately, this has already sold out. If you already have a ticket for the 24th or 25th January, well done. If there’s any extra performances, I’ll let you know.
I hosted a lot of productions at Durham Fringe that went on to Edinburgh, and I didn’t include those in my Edinburgh pick as that oversteps the line between impartial reviewer and venue promoter. However, as this one went to scoop the Brighton Fringe award for excellence along with a good number of reviews, I think I’m allowed to mention this. Rosa and Maya Thomas play two Monkions who have kidnapped Benedict Cumberbatch in order to study the habits of humans. But with Monkions being a kind of hive-mind species, can they ever get to grasp with human emotions.
You’d better be quick though. They’re on for one day only on 29th January at 3.00 p.m. 5.00 p.m. and 7.30 p.m., but the last I heard 7.30 is either sold out or nearly sold out, and 5.00 is going fast too.
Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name
Police Cops needs no introduction, even since their titular debut show which was a parody of basically every cheesy 1970s cop show ever made, followed up with a parody of basically every cheesy 1970s sci-fi show ever made. This one does something different and parodies movies such as Shanghai Noon, except that instead of pairing up a martial arts fighter with a Wild West outlaw, we are pairing up a 1990s raver with a samurai sword-wielding vampire-slaying priest. But the format is the same with the ensemble of three putting in a high-energy performance with high energy, a checklist of movie cliches, much silliness, and one of the slickest performances out there.
Not surprisingly, this is a headliner running for two weeks. It runs on the 7th – 19th February (not Monday) mostly at 8.30 p.m or 8.00 p.m., with a few matinees.
Finlay and Joe: Perpetual Hype Machine
I don’t normally review sketch comedy, but I caught this in a morning gap in my schedule at it was good fun. A nice blend of nerdery humour with plenty of Mario references and relatable experiences of reaching your 30s and not having a house or job or girlfriend yet. And it’s all built around the premise of a new machine that automated the process of creating sketches, which definitely won’t become sentient and try to take over the world. Also notable as one of the few family-friendly sketch acts out there that everyone will enjoy. One performance only on 12th February at 5.15 p.m.
Now for a music act for a change. I saw Isobel Rogers a few Vault festivals back with Elsa, which I can best describe as a musical storytelling performance. In that, coffee shop worker Elsa observes little snippets of people’s lives as they come in and out of the shop, with snippets of her own life also in the mix. This new piece is a work in progress, which doesn’t even have a title beyond “work in progress” at the moment, but its billing offers more of the attributes that made Rogers one of the most acts with the highest potential I’ve seen. Showing on 14th Feburary at 8.30 p.m.
Lachlan Werner: voices of evil
I heard a lot of people talking about him at this year’s Brighton Fringe, but I finally caught a snippet myself at Brighton Horrorfest. Lachlan Werner is an insanely good ventriloquist, and I set there watching his conversation with a puppet witch wondering how the hell this is possible. (Apparently, it’s all down to “consonant substitution”, so that the difficult ones such as “b” and “p” are switched with easy ones with as “g” and “d” fast enough for no-one to notice, but I’m still baffled how it’s pulled off.) The bits of the show I’ve seen involve Lachlan arguing with this sisinter witch who seems to do a better job on controlling him. You can see it on 14th February at 9.10 p.m.
One highlight of recent Buxton Fringes has been sound artist Sam Enthoven. Teaming up with long-standing fringe favourite Polis Loizou, he provided the soundtrack for some eerie storytelling provided by both Polis and his regular collaborator Laura Sampson. Polis is generally just there for the Buxton Fringe performances so Polis fans may have to wait until July, but Sam and Laura are in action at the Vault festival.
This time, it seems Laura Sampson is the creative lead, with inspriations from both the usual folklore and her own story. You can see this on 25th February and 4th & 5th March, at 4.40 p.m.
Another fringe favourite is Notflix, who do improvised musical versions of movies based on an audience suggestion, with my favourite so far being the version of the Titanic where the evil (obviously British) captain’s scheme to sink the ship the ship is thwarted by the plucky Irish sailor who pilots the ship through the icebergs. Sadly, that one has come and gone, but it is groups like this that go to show just how good improvisation can be with not only lyrics but also the music done on the fly. Runing 9th – 12th March at 8.30/8.00 p.m. (plus Saturday Matinee).
The Dark Room
No festival of this type would be complete without John Robertson leading a chant of “YA DIE! YA DIE! YA DIE! YA DIE! YA DIE!” in a homage to the text-based computer games of the 1980s. You know, the ones where you type GO WEST and the computer responds with WRONG, YOU’RE DEAD. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry, you’ll pick it up as you go along. On a more serious note, as well as creating long-running cult favourite, John Robertson is one of the best spontaneous comedians I’ve seen, turning anything thrown at him into a funny moment. Showing 14th – 17th March (that’s Tuesday – Friday, not the usual Thursday – Sunday), at 7.50 p.m.
And finally, something I saw at the Laurels last year, which was part of their offer for a rescue package for groups who lost out to the 2022 cancellation. A spin-off of long-standing Edinburgh student group the Improverts, this takes the format of an improvised true crime documentary, which in the Laurels’ case was set in an abandoned nuclear power plant which has apparently been taken over by ravers. Seriously, for a show that’s only just got started, I was impressed with their performance, which I thought wasn’t off big hitters such as Murder She Didn’t Write and Crime Scene Improvisation. In the final weekend on 18th & 19th March at 4.30 p.m.
So there we are. Surely Vault 2023 is going ahead with no more disasters. Have fun.