Will Coronavirus clobber the fringe season?

Update 29/03/20: As you are probably aware, pretty much every prediction I have made so far with a resolution one way or the other turned out to be wrong. I will write an update once we have a better idea what’s happening – in the meantime, here’s the original for you to laugh and point at.

It’s not often I do stand-alone news articles. Normally I wait until the end of the month and put it in odds and sods. However, this is a fast-moving situation and what was idle speculation a few days ago is already a serious possibility. So, it turns out that, unlike Sars, Swine Flue, Bird Flu and pretty much every other lurgi where the panic was way out of proportion, with Coronavirus there actually is something to worry about. There’s been lockdowns of various degrees going on all over Europe, and this morning the Scottish Government has announced what appears to be a ban on events with more than 500 people. It’s not clear exactly how that’s going to work, and one important detail is that the reason for the ban is to free up emergency services to deal with Coronavirus cases, rather than preventing the spread. Even as I write this, the English football leagues have announced a one-month delay of their matches. Continue reading

What’s worth watching: Vault Festival 2020

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Skip to: And She, Ask Me Anything, The Future is Mental, Badass Be Thy Name, Skank, 39 Degrees

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.

(All events are in the Vaults itself unless otherwise noted.)

And She

https://static.wixstatic.com/media/2518f1_893db14ee33e48c2bbaf5e7e6d6714ee~mv2_d_3261_2163_s_2.jpg/v1/crop/x_0,y_266,w_3261,h_1891/fill/w_947,h_546,al_c,q_85,usm_0.66_1.00_0.01/and%20she%20portrait%20full%20size%20(website).webpOne 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.

Ask Me Anything

https://www.thepaperbirds.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/093-DSC_3341.jpgNorthern 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.

The Future is Mental

Thttps://www.networktheatre.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/The-Future-is-Mental-620x402.jpghis 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.

Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name

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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.

Skank

Nhttps://btg.ams3.cdn.digitaloceanspaces.com/images/50428/original/Skank_2.jpgow 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.

39 Degrees

https://redbellyblacktheatre.files.wordpress.com/2019/08/gopr0967_1564162607603_high.jpgMost 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.

Roundup: Vault Festival 2019

REVIEWS: Skip to: Ovid’s Metamorphoses, April, Ladybones, Celebrate, Tacenda, Counting Sheep

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:

Ovid’s Metamorphoses

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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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Roundup: Vault Festival 2018

Main hall of the Vault Festival, before the crowds come in

REVIEWS: skip to Bump!, Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho, You, The MMORPG show, Storytelling: London, Doktor James’s Bad Skemes, Elsa, The Great Gatsby

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. Continue reading

Roundup: Vault Festival 2017

The main bar at the Vaults

REVIEWS: Skip to: Scenes from an Urban Gothic, This is not Culturally Significant, Circle Line, Claustrophilia, Mars Actually, Blood and Bone, Ventoux, Three unrelated short plays

So Vault 2017 is on. This time last year, doubts were being raised as to whether there would be a Vault 2017 at all owing to financial worries. I was always a little sceptical of this worry, because realistically this space can’t be used for anything else, but whatever the worries, this year, it’s as busy as ever, with no sign to a casual observer that there was ever any trouble. So I found the time to get myself down to London and dip my toe for four days.

To repeat the same thing I said last year (and will probably repeat every year), the Vault Festival should not, as some in the arts press suggest, be considered London’s answer to the Edinburgh Fringe. The whole point of the Edinburgh Fringe is that anyone can take part. The Vault Festival, on the other hand, is a curated festival. I don’t like this blurring between the two kinds of festivals, because this encourages the practice of claiming your festival as a fringe then curating it (e.g. York, Ludlow), depriving entry-level performers of opportunities to get started that is so desperately lacking right now.

This is not in any way the fault of Vault – they never claimed to be a fringe themselves, it was other people who labelled them that way. It would help, however, if they were open about how they curate the festival so the difference is known and understood. I heard that a lot of acts this year was chosen based on a theme of “space”, but that could mean anything, and I always think it’s better to be open about this.

Anyway, enough of that. Let’s get on with covering the festival. Continue reading

Roundup: Vault Festival 2016

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The ongoing problem with my annual fringe fix is that after Edinburgh, there’s an eight-month wait before the next one at Brighton. So, partly in an attempt to curb my fringe withdrawal jitters, and partly because Virgin Trains East Coast sell stupidly cheap leisure tickets at this time of year, I thought I’d give the Vault Festival a try. This is an arts festival that takes place in the arches underneath Waterloo station, and in case you ever forget that, you’ll be reminded by the noise of a train passing over your head.

So with ten events attended in four days, that fix should keep me going until Brighton, where I’ll be jittery for completely different reasons. But how does it do as a festival. Here is my first ever round up of the Vault festival. I’ve already written about a Devoted and Disgruntled session that happened to be on whilst I was there, but for the plays themselves, read on … Continue reading

Are we in danger of a “can’t-do” attitude for disabled artists?

Devotes and Disgruntled logo

This is a post I am syndicating to both my theatre blog and the web page of Devoted and Disgruntled. For theatre blog regulars who don’t know what this is, Devoted and Disgruntled is a series of theatre networking events which broadly works as a free-for-all discussion forum where anyone can lead a discussion and anyone can go to any discussion they like. They do occasional forums across the country on an open theme, but there’s lots of these in London on specific themes. Last week there was one on artists with autism and learning disabilities at the Vault Festival. I was coincidentally in London for the Vault Festival that week, and I have an interest in this. Those of you who know me will already know why I have an interest. Those who don’t … well, you will know shortly.

It was an interesting afternoon, and the main lesson learned was how complicated this issue is. So many issues were interlinked to other issues about theatre in general. There’s plenty of other topics on the D&D site that’ll interesting reading; for now, I can say that the most surprising observation was that – even though the attendees were all supportive of inclusivity in theatre – there was little support for quotas. Anyway, enough of that. I need to got on with my particular topic, which was to ask if there’s a danger of creating a “can’t do” attitude. Confused? Let me explain. Continue reading