Tag Archives: The Vaults

“Dumbledore is So Gay” at the Southwark Playhouse

Robert Holtom’s short play is, undeniably, niche – the audience demographic is specific. It looks at the youthful experiences of three friends who are Harry Potter fans, so it helps to know the franchise. And the show’s origins on the fringe, at the excellent Vault Festival, are clear, with fun had at the limited cast numbers. But within what some might see as constraints, the piece is strong: focused, solidly written, well-performed and with original touches.

Jack, who is gay, deals with bullying and a girlfriend while having a crush on his best friend. The focus is homophobia (the title comes from schoolyard slurs). Holtom writes insightfully about prejudice, highlighting small insults as well as big threats. An older offstage character called Norman is particularly well thought out. The outcome of the aggression experienced is moving. And, impressively, there is a focus into the damage that internalising hatred can cause.

In case this sounds worthy, it should be stressed that Dumbledore is So Gay is funny (particularly if you’re part of the fandom). The cast are strong comics and director Tom Wright knows this is one of the show’s strengths. There are the “drunken kisses” you might expect, which are sweet. When the actors double up as parents or teachers there’s even more fun. Close observations lead to lots of nodding in the audience.

Now for the twist… Jack can travel back in time (again, something from Harry Potter), so Holtom offers different versions of a coming out and coming-of-age story. Taking the lead, Alex Britt shows subtlety in the variations of this – a smart move. The conceit also means that Jack’s friends Gemma and Oli have characters fuller than might be expected, making strong roles for Charlotte Dowding and Martin Sarreal, who are also superb.

The different scenarios are increasingly positive without feeling forced. The fact that all three characters “deserve to be happy” is plenty – rather than prescribing what that happiness should be. Holtom makes a point of being positive, so you’re sure to leave feeling good. It’s a big achievement for a small show.

Until 23 September 2023


Photo by David Jenson

“That’s Ace” at the Vault Festival

A night in a nightclub is the very simple scenario for Jonny Brace’s play. We follow the adventures of Ace as she waits for a school friend, Sasha, who she might be in love with; as an asexual, Ace is not sure. The play’s exploration of her dilemma is sensitive, smart, and above all funny.

Ace is blunt, she has a logical mind, so I don’t think she’d be offended by pointing out that the play is all about her. Although there are conversations with others, the perspective is Ace’s alone and the play all about the character. The limitations are obvious… but what a character! Brace has written a role to adore and, importantly, laugh with rather than at.

From small observations, like the way vodka and coke is like coke but not as nice and more expensive, to her frank questions about why people are so obsessed with sex, it is hard not to fall in love with Ace. Maybe I’m biased… I’ve also wondered why people like nightclubs. But as well as being quirky, Brace writes about the sense of touch very well – as the text’s aim is to open discussion and understanding of asexuality, this is an important addition.

Much of the character’s power comes from an excellent performance from Tiffany Marina Pearmund, who has the show’s kooky yet also down-to-earth comedy down to perfection. You feel for Ace, young love never runs smooth. But the lack of drama here is a brave, smart move (Ace is too sensible to get too worked up) that shows a distinctive voice behind the show. Brace’s direction is snappy and strict with his own writing. That’s Ace has a justified confidence; it shows us something different and it shows it well.

Until 17 March 2023


“Fanboy” at the Vault Festival

Writer and performer Joe Sellman-Leava’s strong monologue shares a lot of characteristics with its titular protagonist – the show is full of enthusiasm and insight. Yet Fanboy’s biggest strength is how surprising it is. 

Sellman-Leava has a lot to say and using the Star Wars films and The Muppet Christmas Carol makes the delivery of ideas novel. Spoilers are strictly prohibited – fanboys hate them – so let’s just say the show takes in a lot of contemporary events and big issues. And that Fanboy looks at the topic of childhood in a thought-provoking way.

It should be OK to comment on the theatricality of the show. Sellman-Leava gives a suitably endearing, intimate, performance. The direction from Yaz Al-Shaater is tight, at times a little rushed, while Al-Shaater’s video and sound design are impressive. The romance in the show might need more detail to have the desired impact. But the story of a mate who becomes toxic is exceptionally well handled – shared memories are cherished for too long as this school friend starts to become a fan of more sinister people.

It’s possible Sellman-Leava takes a little too much knowledge for granted from his audience. Even if never having seen Star Wars amazes you, a lot of knowledge of the whole franchise is needed to enjoy some of the jokes. But the sense of outrage and admiration common to fan communities is well known and well depicted. Sellman-Leava harnesses passion expertly to tell his engaging story.

While there’s a lot of fun in Fanboy, Sellman-Leava is aware it’s how people feel about these movies (and books and video games) that count. The place held in memories and the dangers of nostalgia create a powerful drama. 

Until 12 March 2023


“Spur” at the Vault Festival

There is a particular excitement about seeing a play on the fringe that has the potential to expand. Spur is already a five-star show. But it is also constrained by its hour-long duration and by the venue. This is the kind of theatre that, for me, is what the marvellous Vault Festival is all about. Spur is great, and it also has room to grow.

Matt Neubauer’s script is strong – a poetic and imaginative exploration of love and catharsis. And it’s novel. Spur is framed around the re-enactment of a Western, just the kind you’d comfortably watch on a Saturday afternoon. The film was a favourite of a deceased father, and the actress ‘starring’ in the movie breaks character to tell us about her family relationships.

There are stories, too, from her ‘co-stars’ – that I can’t think of a better word indicates how involving the connection between memories and the ‘film’ we see performed are, and how well the cast and creatives play with the link between the two. Two other cast members also play more than cowboys, they have their own tales of loss and grief as well.

As for these extra stories – note how much deception there is. Each is unsettling, there’s plenty going in the background and there’s a sense of humour to disappointments that proves alluring.

The only caveat is that the script is too compacted. While the play thrives on ambiguity, it is frustrating to see how easily it could be unpacked. The show is crying out for another scene from both George Fletcher and Benjamin Victor. I’d bet a silver dollar they’re already written.

A deal of the piece’s success is down to the actors. It’s hard to fault the performances from Fletcher, Victor or Maddy Strauss, who plays the lead protagonist Sadie. Strauss gives my favourite performance of the festival so far, investing the show with great emotional power. And she really could star in a Western!

Bringing the piece close to a tearjerker, the projected film that Sadie watches/performs is interspersed with a home movie. Alberto Lais’ video work is touching, the traverse staging is handled well by director James Nash and the lighting design by Ben Kulvichit is superb. But the technical difficulties of working in a tunnel (oh, those trains) are painfully easy to appreciate. All aspects of the production could be improved with ease.

It’s tricky to write about what a play could be rather than what is on stage – and any observation doesn’t detract from what has been achieved here. But it would be good to see Spur again with a little more polish in a better space. It could have a bright future.

Until 9 March 2023


“Time” at the Vault Festival

Playwright and performer Gaynor O’Flynn’s show has a meditative quality, with spiritual aims, that makes for novel and thought-provoking theatre.

The fascinating character in Time is “a woman of a certain age” that O’Flynn makes intriguing as well as relatable. Looking back on the past with grim frankness, she stalks old friends online. These contemporaries, described as “bigger, better, brighter” women, are heard from via video projections.

Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve

It turns out these other women – wealthy through careers in law, TV, music, tech, art – are all jealous. They remember our protagonist’s freedom, a flowing approach to life that contrasts with the fixed paths they have travelled. The spooky projections seem to have it all, to have achieved what they set out to do, but suffer from imposter syndrome and dream about what might have been.

When it comes to the role of time in all of this, perhaps not surprisingly given the complexity of the subject, the show doesn’t quite convince. It’s hard not to make such ruminating seem solipsistic and the characters can come across as somewhat spoilt. A concluding acceptance of past and present seems woolly – in stark contrast to how focused both writing, structure and performance are.

The video monologues might be a little too neat and, despite being admirably concise, there might be too many of them. But the friends’ admiration of our central figure – who many admit they didn’t know well – raises a lot of questions. How accurate are any of these narrators? The script has a musicality that is strangely hypnotic, the detail is impressive, and the show questions ideas of “success” very… successfully, which all makes it 60 minutes of time well spent.

Until 12 March 2023


“Five Years with the White Man” at the Vault Festival

An interesting story, superbly performed by Joseph Akubeze, with a strong twist, makes this show from Unleash the Llama an easy one to recommend. The script from Eloka Obi and Saul Boyer is exciting, while director Sam Rayner shows a clear understanding of the project and makes the most of its dynamism and ideas.

At the start, we’re in the field of reclaimed history with the show presented as a “little lecture” from 19th-century satirist ABC Merriman-Labor. This is a fascinating life story, from his childhood in Sierra Leone to his time in London, where he trained as a barrister but also wrote the ethnographic account of Empire that gives the play its title.

Akubeze makes Merriman-Labor an engaging figure, taking on lots of roles along the way and aided by some excellent sound design. It’s a tale of colonial injustice, saved from bleak tragedy by humour and romance.

But there’s a lot more to Five Years with the White Man. Akubeze breaks character in a shocking style to tell another story – that of the performer we’re watching, who insists he is not an actor (much fun here), and his love with the writer of the play we were engrossed in…a playwright who has now passed away. It turns out the night is a memorial or “bereavement therapy”.

As the two tales mirror one another, there are a lot of sweet touches. The tone is intimate and moving. Merriman-Labor’s illicit love for a childhood friend gains a power from association. The narrator and his subject are connected across the centuries in a moving fashion. In short, it’s a novel and engaging way of addressing the themes of legacy and memorial.

Until 5 March 2023


“Someone of Significance” at the Vault Festival

Playwright Amalia Kontesi wants a debate and she wants one badly. Someone of Significance frames a discussion about capitalism around a romance – an idea with potential. Unfortunately, there is too little behind the conceit.

Brad and Rosie are bankers, in America, who start an affair. Their careers and ambitions diverge but their affection, somehow, remains. The problem is that, despite fine performances from Simon Bass and Funlola Olufunwa, and convincing chemistry between them, neither the characters nor their arguments quite convince.

It’s hard to believe that the couple are high powered, or even that they work in the corporate world. What little detail Kontesi provides is predictable. Despite establishing how bright she is, Rosie seems surprised at what her job entails and how much money she earns. The different backgrounds that lead to their divergent opinions need elaborating.

As for the arguments, which should provide some weight to the play, they are too simplistic and unchallenging. The script needs more humour. Credit again to Bass and Olufunwa, who both make the dialogue sound natural. But two super-smart bankers going over basic economics is a struggle: both use terms like gentrification and trickle-down as if nobody had ever heard them before.

Matters don’t improve when Rosie’s ambition to be President becomes the focus. The ideas about politics are just as brief and share an easy, cynical shorthand. Maybe there are too many scenes in Someone of Significance? Could richer detail could come in fewer, longer scenes?There’s certainly too much time wasted with costume changes, and director Sam Tannenbaum could pick up the pace to add some tension.

The love story is better written. Interestingly, the play doesn’t get waylaid by the initial power imbalance between the couple. Rosie has autonomy and is a positive role model. And Kontesi does well to make Brad slightly more sympathetic, despite being to the political right of Rosie. The sweet conclusion is neat. The romance is a good container for the play. The trouble is that container is too empty.

Until 5 March 2023


Photo by Vasiliki Verousi

“Hide and Seek” at the Vault Festival

Tobia Rossi’s play won the Mario Fratti Award in Italy and this UK premiere features strong performances. The play has intriguing moments but is plagued by oddities and a lack of detail. The conclusion, especially, fails to convince dramatically.

The scenario is neat. Bullied at school, Gio runs away to a cave and then starts a relationship with a classmate, Mirko, who discovers him by accident. But even simple sets-ups need elaborating; how small (and backwards) the boys’ village is could be evoked better.

It might help to know how old both boys actually are. They seem very naïve for teenagers. A plot to pretend Gio has been kidnapped, including a gruesome scene of mutilation, is close to silly. The inconsistency comes as Rossi spends a lot of time making Gio smart, including giving him a pretty grown-up sense of humour. 

Then there’s the boys’ sexual fumbling, which gets giggles but is also uncomfortable. As well as a poorly timed first kiss, it isn’t clear if the more confident Gio is supposed to be seducing his simpler friend.

While the bullying both Gio and then Mirko experience is horrible, it doesn’t seem commensurate with events. OK, both boys are troubled… but that needs to be made a lot clearer. Maybe Gio really is as weird as his classmates think? Or as hungry for attention as his social media fixation suggests? Again, the problem is that Gio is so obviously our hero that a lot of tension escapes: darker sides of both boys aren’t elaborated enough.

Director and translator Carlotta Brentan can do little to avoid problems in the script, although an oppressive score from Simone Manfredini could have been abandoned. There are good performances from Issam Al Ghussain and Nico Cetrulo to enjoy, though. The former does especially well with Rossi’s dark humour. Unfortunately, the play’s ending shadows their achievement.

It isn’t Rossi’s fault that having miserable ends for gay characters isn’t what we’re about nowadays! When Gio wants to come out of his closet, sorry cave, the result is dire. Escalating the play into a tragedy needs a surer hand and stronger intimations for the audience. Homophobia and bullying are serious topics with awful consequences but, when Hide and Seek aims to becomes a tragedy, the shock and surprise are too much. 

Until 23 February 2023


Photo by Mariano Gobb

“Maud” at the Vault Festival

This show from (Sic) Theatre, conceived by Jeffrey Miller, skilfully tackles the important and emotive subject of racism and police violence towards African Americans. A verbatim piece, which draws on a variety of sources, Maud is my first five-star show from this year’s excellent Vault Festival.

The focus is the tragedy of Ahmaud ‘Maud’ Arbery, who was shot while out jogging on 23 February 2020. Attention and detail are paid to this story through re-enacting police interviews, some of the court case and his family’s statements. Alongside the performances are real-life voiceovers and projected film footage. The video design, by Roberto Esquenazi Alkabes, is accomplished. The events are disturbing, but the tone is calm – director Andrew French leaves the audience to be appalled by itself.

A quest for justice for Arbery is interspersed with talk shows and historic debate. There’s outrage in TV studios and, a real highlight, a section of James Baldwin’s debate with William F Buckley in Cambridge in 1965. Along with scenes of protest and an appearance from President Trump, Maud focuses minds on the systemic nature of racism and makes the case for its subtitle that what happened to Arbery was a modern-day lynching.

Jeffrey Miller and Perry Williams

The show boasts two excellent performances. Miller and Perry Williams take on all the roles and flip between them with ease, using the space with assurance and switching emotions with skill. Care is taken over each role, however difficult or distasteful.

The performers also watch and listen – like the audience – to the material taken from real life. The respect and attention in such moments is theatrically powerful but also indicative of the care shown throughout the whole piece, ensuring the subject has the gravity and import it deserves.

Until 25 February 2023


Photo by Lidia Crisafulli

“The Tinker” at the Vault Festival

On a dark and stormy night, a couple in an isolated house receive an unexpected guest. There’s plenty of atmosphere to enjoy in Olivia Foan’s period drama and, if the show poses a moral dilemma rather than the spooky story you might initially expect, it remains very enjoyable.

The Edwardian age is tricky for fringe drama as props can be expensive. But designer Nikki Charlesworth has done very well (apart from the shoes). And if the language in the script might be stricter – modern terms sneak in – the plot is neat and twisty.

The couple, who have a tragic history, are brought to life by Lauren O’Leary and Keon Martial-Phillip. There’s thorough work behind the performances. Evelyn’s anxiety is a mystery that becomes moving, while Frank’s demons are revealed with skill. The dynamics of their relationship are interesting and dramatic.

Giles Abbott

The guest that gives the play its title is more of a problem. Giles Abbott gives a commendable performance, but the line between charisma and cliché might be crossed once or twice too often. Frank and Evelyn leap to suspicions… maybe the audience could have more doubts about the character, too? The Tinker takes up a lot of time and space in a play that isn’t, really, about him. Motives flip-flop too much, and his final action is downright odd.

The story that develops is both melodramatic and believable – which is a tricky mix to pull off. Children are the key (with a strong sense of period detail), and the plot turns on power. The wealthy Frank and Evelyn show themselves as ruthless. And a final twist suggesting the plan they hatch won’t work out is a great touch. The Tinker isn’t without problems but there’s enough strong work for all involved to be pleased.

Until 19 February 2023