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Vault Festival 2018: Aliens, strippers, chemsex and Peter Pan – Waterloo’s underground event has it all

Chivaree Circus' Becoming Shades

Since its first edition in 2012, Vault Festival [1]has livened up the traditionally slow months after Christmas. A haven of bars, booze and eclectic fringe theatre tucked away in the warren of graffiti-adorned tunnels underneath Waterloo, it runs from late January until mid-March.

Vault serves not only as a launch pad for fresh talent but also as an opportunity for emerging artists and their shows to make a relatively inexpensive London transfer. Shows come to the festival both before heading up to Edinburgh, still with kinks to be ironed out, and after finding success there, fully tried and tested.

The festival’s radically simple financial model – no fee, just a straight box-office split, 30% to the festival, 70% to the artist – means there’s little risk involved for artists, but plenty of reward in showcasing their work there.

How the Vault Festival is thriving beneath London’s streets [2]

Vault has grown year on year since its inception [2]. In terms of numbers, it’s now London’s biggest performing arts festival, swelling from 7,500 audience members in 2012 to 50,000 in 2017. The 2018 edition is set to be bigger still.

The comedy slate has been substantially beefed up, a few new performance spaces have been colonised, and the laudably diverse, 52% female-led theatrical programme has swelled, too. There are well over 300 shows in total: according to the festival’s directors, Tim Wilson, Andy George and Mat Burt, it’s going to be “longer, later, wilder, smarter and funnier” than ever before. 

The vaults themselves are dark and drippy but work there is often surprising and stimulating [3]. This year there’s plenty to look forward to…

Immerse yourself

Immersive theatre has always been a big part of what the Vaults does as a venue. Last year’s festival hosted the Guild of Misrule’s popular show The Great Gatsby [4], which turned F Scott Fitzgerald’s novella into swinging party-cum-immersive theatre show. Les Enfants Terribles has also pitched up down there, with its adaptations Alice’s Adventures Underground and Dinner at the Twits [5].

This year sees the return of the Guild of Misrule with Neverland [6], an immersive twist on Peter Pan. Forget the dickie bows and glitter and Long Island luxury of last year, this festival’s big ticket is a riotous romp with the Lost Boys, Captain Hook and his nemesis crocodile.

But that’s far from all the immersive and interactive offerings. Also running throughout the festival are Exit Productions’ Revolution, drawing on strategic board games to cast participants as rival factions in a turbulent future London, and Mostly Harmless Theatre’s The Lifeboat, an eight-person escape room inspired by 1970s sci-fi and created by interactive theatre mainstay Tom Hall.

The Guild of Misrule’s Neverland. Photo: SR Taylor [7]
The Guild of Misrule’s Neverland. Photo: SR Taylor

If that’s not enough excitement, you can experience an intense, 45-minute monologue from the backseat of a crashed stolen car in Fever Dream Theatre’s Wrecked, or witness a relationship breakdown in an actual moving car in Pentire Street Productions’ Rubber, which turned heads at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

You can find yourself at the heart of a Cold War spy thriller in Neil Connolly’s Le Carre-inspired Lamplighters, you can experience some politically charged hip-hop dance in Caravan, and you can travel back in time to the Second World War in Think of England, a singing, dancing show from touring company Anonymous Is a Woman. Or you can just chill at Soul in the Van, a series of 15-minute, intimate acoustic gigs in the back of a transit.

You might need to chill, in fact, if you choose to take on the Tom Sawyer Effect’s immersive piece The Pendulum. This 10-minute “hyper-reality horror experience” is loosely inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Pit and the Pendulum, but also pays homage to 1980s horror flicks. It’s one-at-a-time. Yep, that’s right, you’re alone in the dark.

Back for more

Immersive and interactive theatre is just one branch on a rich and varied tree. For those of a more conventional taste, there’s plenty to get excited about. Not least because this year’s festival incorporates several new venues, including the nearby Waterloo East and Network theatres.

One show in particular to look forward to is James Rowland’s Revelations, the third and final tale in his unique ‘true’ storytelling trilogy Songs of Friendship after the heartbreaking Team Viking [8] and last year’s A Hundred Different Words for Love [9].

A Hundred Different Words for Love review at Vault, London – ‘bittersweet and carefully crafted’ [9]

Don’t worry if you missed the first two instalments of Rowland’s raw, emotionally resonant cycle: all three pieces are being performed twice consecutively in the festival’s fourth week. And if earnest storytelling is your thing, check out John Osborne’s stirring, soulful act of remembrance Circled in the Radio Times.

There are also transfers of successful shows from elsewhere, including John O’Donovan’s rooftop romance If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You [10] from the Old Red Lion, Blackboard Theatre’s exploration of the cocaine industry, Stardust, from Southwark Playhouse’s Casa Festival [11], and Tatty Hennessy’s heartwarming and humorous A Hundred Words For Snow, a version of which is currently the pick of a triple-bill of monologues at London’s Arcola.

This Is Not Culturally Significant at the Bunker Theatre, London. Photo: Bessell McNamee [12]
Adam Scott-Rowley in This Is Not Culturally Significant. Photo: Bessell McNamee

There are a few returning hits from previous editions of Vault, too. Becoming Shades is a spectacular mythological tale from all-female circus troupe Chivaree Circus, Out of Spite Theatre’s one-man show This Is Not Culturally Significant [13] is stark and shocking, and Wound Up Theatre’s 2015 hit Bismillah! An Isis Tragicomedy does exactly what it says on the tin.

Dive in

Some of the most exciting experiences are to be found by diving into the mountain of fresh work from emerging artists. There are a few more musicals this year, and refugee stories seem to have slipped down the agenda, but the scope of the shows on offer is still overwhelming, from one-woman, gender-swapped noir crime dramas (Double Infemnity), to holographic installations (The Forest of Phantasmagorias). And of course, there’s the ubiquitous musical about Trump. Two, in fact.

There’s a new LGBT+ drama in the shape of Paloma Oakenfold’s Stud, a dark comedy set in the world of football, Rob Ward’s Gypsy Queen, which tackles homophobia in boxing, and Christopher Adams’ Tumulus, a crime drama set in London’s chemsex scene.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic stories are on the bill as well. For a Black Girl is a part-autobiographical, part-verbatim response to the claim that racism doesn’t exist in the UK by Nicole Acquah. Still We Dream… is an intensely physical dance piece from Joseph Toonga focusing on the lives of young black men in contemporary London. And British-Brazilian solo performer Joana Nastari’s Fuck You Pay Me promises a gritty insight into the world of stripping.

Ellen Spence in Fuck You Pay Me [14]
Ellen Spence in Fuck You Pay Me

What else? Well, there’s a musical about the US actor and former wrestler Dwayne Johnson becoming president (The People’s Rock: A Musical), a darknet drama funded by Bitcoin (Silk Road), and a subversive cabaret from Prom Kween [15] creator Rebecca Humphries (Red/Wolf).

There’s a smattering of international theatre, too: Evros – The Crossing River uses music and movement to tell the story of Syrian refugees, and Momin Swaitat’s Alien Land tells the allegorical sci-fi story of an extraterrestrial invasion of Palestine.

There’s family-friendly fare during the day, and there’s entertainment long into the night with the festival’s programme of specially curated parties. There are several bars, food outlets, cool people and experiences galore, all crammed into a bewilder-ing labyrinth of underground tunnels. Time to get digging.

Vault Festival runs from January 24-March 18 [16]

This content is supported by We Are Waterloo [17]

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