Tag Archives: The Vaults

“The Silver Bell” at the Vault Festival

Alan Flanagan’s hour-long two-hander is easy to recommend. The play is funny and heartfelt, while the polished direction from Dan Hutton leads to enjoyable performances from Brendan O’Rourke and Flanagan himself.

A love affair between Mico and James gets a lot of laughs. From the start, Flanagan and O’Rouke make this pleasingly unlikely couple endearing. One is an actor, the other a scientist, and their squabbles are sweet. There is impressive detail in the writing and an air of frank, disarming honesty.

That what we see is the re-enactment of their romance adds charm and intrigue (Mico’s nerves and notebook are lovely touches). As things become serious, with James’ death from motor neurone disease, the play tugs at heartstrings in an effective but impressively unsentimental fashion. Flanagan’s understated performance is excellent.

Next comes some sci-fi. Mico’s research becomes real as he jumps to different universes to find his partner again. There are light touches along the way and O’Rourke gets to shine as different versions of his character. The action is tight, and Amy Hill’s lighting design is, like the script, nice and neat.

The James from another universe (who has an offstage Mico of his own) can see what’s really going on. But Mico needs to work out that telling – rather than trying to repeat – his story is the important thing. Against the odds, the play becomes celebration of love, however painful, and a thought-provoking piece about grief that lingers in the memory.

Until 12 February 2023


“Buff” at the Vault Festival

There is solid work both behind and on stage with this impressive monologue. The script by Ben Fensome is well crafted and the performance from David O’Reilly is bold and dynamic. Director and dramaturge Scott Le Crass makes the most of both writer and actor with a sympathetic and intelligent approach to their talents.

Buff starts as a comedy – quite a light one, even if the character tells us he gets “crude when I’m nervous”. The jokes are sound and O’Reilly clearly has a gift for getting laughs. His role is amiable and irrepressible, despite being dumped by a long-term love and facing fat-shaming from potential partners. A GSOH doesn’t seem to mean much on dating apps. Best of all, his job as a primary school teacher leads to lovely Joyce Grenfell moments.

The real skill comes with changing the tone of the piece to become sad and serious. Fensome gets to show his ability to address issues around the impact of prejudice. Other characters – a flatmate, that ex and a sister – are admirably vivid as they take the brunt of our hero becoming, well, not very nice. Bravely, those depressing dates aren’t played for laughs (that must have been tempting) and with some effective, if simple, ironies we see that superficiality isn’t the preserve of those who go to the gym.

Le Crass handles the alteration in tone expertly, emphasising the show’s careful structure and making the humour sharp. Even those moments in a classroom end up with bite. It all makes great material for O’Reilly, who gives a real star turn. While we never lose sympathy, there are moving moments when we see how unreasonable a character we once liked has become. Buff is highly polished and a credit to all.

Until 19 February 2023


“Walking Cats” at the Vault Festival

Zhaolin Zhou’s one-man show is adorable. Although tackling serious subjects, including the homesickness experienced by migrants and mental health issues exacerbated by the Covid-19 lockdown, there’s so much charm here you leave this show with a warm glow.

Walking Cats is inventive. Drawings and models, by Rimu Kwok, displayed via a live video feed (the closest thing I’ve seen is a company called The Paper Cinema) make the creativity behind the show clear. The pictures on cards are arranged and replaced with mesmerising care that builds a sense of delight. There are technical hitches – we are told the show is “messy” – but any drawbacks are handled with endearing appeal.

A kind of magic comes from how personal the show feels, and Zhaolin Zhou’s performance is the key. From greeting the audience as they arrive to some lovely adlibs he is, mostly, enjoying himself. The audience are on his side. And it’s nice to be reminded of how important being polite can prove! Any mistakes or difficulties become engaging. Moments talking about his mother are clearly difficult, but the sincerity on the stage is powerful.

As for the story itself…it is understandably slight. While this lockdown was clearly more creative, as well as more difficult, than most, we all remember how boring that time was. At first, it’s about walks around Kilburn. Then, as agoraphobia sets in, there’s a lot about recreating recipes from back home. It is mundane (supermarket shopping plays a big part), but the detail is evocative and the drawings a treat.

The minutiae become fantastical as memory and imagination interact. Sound and music (strong work from Tingying Dong) as well as descriptions of food vividly conjure Zhaolin Zhou’s home. The conceit of a toy cat as a proxy is a final whimsy to praise. The show becomes so quirky you can’t quite believe what you’re watching – like someone remembering daydreams they had – and this is a stroll down a memory lane that is worth taking.

Until 5 February 2023


“Heroes” at the Vault Festival

Unusually for a fringe production, Chakira Alin’s play has the large number of ten performers. A slice-of-life East End drama, with high stakes and plenty of important topics, the play overreaches itself. But the ambition is exciting, and Heroes is undoubtably entertaining.

While the plot might be suited to a soap opera the play tries hard to be profound. There’s a lot of quick judgements and homespun wisdom, which makes some of the dialogue clunky and, occasionally, pushes credibility. But the young characters are heartfelt, earnest and anxious (which seems on trend) and carry the show.

The football-mad friends from an estate (they have plenty of problems as well as aspirations) are an appealing set. The roles are established with skill and hold interest. Best mates Sol and Jonno makes good parts for Jacob Benhayoun and Reuben Rogers who are impressive. and there are charismatic performances from Tirza Sey and Xander Pang. Older characters are less successful, in particular a poetic eccentric called The Wizard, whose role is baffling.

There are problems with the production, most of which (particularly the abrupt lighting cues) would surely settle given a longer run. Director Dixie McDevitt might focus on group scenes to avoid the feeling of characters waiting patiently for the next person to speak. And while this space at the festival is especially demanding (it’s actually just horrible), several performers speak too quietly too often. Also, some more confident delivery would bring out the script’s humour.

The strongest scenes show Alin’s originality. A focus on the theme of fatherhood is a highlight. The articulate youngsters present a version of masculinity that isn’t toxic… that makes a change. This isn’t a quest for role models (interesting in itself) – fathers are “dead, disinterested or detained” – but for a better life.

The youthful autarky makes the ending jar. The conclusion involves knife crime. That this is unexpected is an important point. Things seem to be going well until a devastating violent moment. It’s undoubtedly an important topic, and Alin is bold to tackle it. But events occur to far into the play and a rushed conclusion doesn’t do justice to the hard work or talent here.

Until 27 January 2023


“Bloody Mary: Live!” at the Vault Festival

After a valiant effort to get back to normal last year, London’s biggest theatre extravaganza has finally returned, and I am very excited. Never mind the smell of the greasepaint, it’s street artists’ aerosol spray at the Leake Street Arches that herald a two-month long programme of exciting and varied events.

First up is a one-woman show, written and performed by Olivia Miller. And very good it is too. Ostensibly a stand-up comedy act, with Mary Tudor presented as an angsty teenager, there are smart ideas and the performance is strong. We know these re-evaluations of history are clever as well as fun… but Mary warns us that she isn’t a fan of the musical Six. Is it, after all, full of her wicked stepmothers!

There is a lot of audience participation in Bloody Mary: Live! The venue suits it and Olivia Munk’s direction makes the most of this. I’m not a fan but, even objectively, there’s too much “raise your hand if…”, as the technique is used to structure the show. That said, Miller deals with the audience superbly. You do know where a lot of the jokes are going to end (not just because of history) but they are always well delivered.

The highlight of all the participation is very clever indeed. It involves volunteers doing nothing – just like the powerful men who could have helped Mary and her mother. The scene has real bite as we get to see the character as a frightened young girl. Read as a conceit that the comedy show is therapy for Mary, formats slip and trauma start to feel real.

Miller has done her homework and wants to present complexity. As well as tackling that bloody reputation, there’s a feminist perspective, highlighting that Mary’s romantic life was not her own and bringing out lots details that kids would call icky. A nice balance is provided by an infatuation with her childhood tutor.

When it comes to that nickname, the persecution of Protestants shows how damaged Mary was. The line between teenage dirtbag and young psychopath blurs to dramatic effect. Laughs stop and start suddenly. Miller manages to create a chill in the air and that is to her credit.

Until 29 January 2023


Photo by Graeme Braidwood

“Bin Juice” at the Vault Festival

Cat Kolubayev’s comedy thriller is a little treat. A neat if queasy scenario, about a sinister waste disposal business and its new recruit, has great characters and a wicked sense of humour.

Firmly directed by Anastasia Bruce-Jones, Bin Juice benefits from three strong performers making the most of solid roles.

Adeline Waby and Madison Clare – both superb comedians – play the firm’s psychopathically quirky employees. There’s a great sense of their offbeat relationship being long established. Waby’s character is steely and smart, Clare’s deadpan and whacky, and both get great laughs from lines both blunt and surreal – a mix of nonchalance and concern is nicely handled. Into the mix comes Belinda, another strong showing from Helena Antoniou, who tackles the distinct humour just as well and adds a touch of mysterious tension.

Exciting as the Vault Festival is, it has to be mentioned (again) how poor the acoustics are. The venue does not serve this piece well. It’s clear that the talented cast have to shout more often than the script needs, a fair call on Bruce-Jones’ part but I’d love to hear a quieter menace in some lines.

The short running times at the festival also prove a drawback. Kolubayev plots well, playing with predictable genre elements, I really wanted to know more about the “someone” in charge who communicates only by phone. But the show feels truncated. More, please – let’s hope this piece can be expanded. A sense of shock at the abrupt end shows Bin Juice is as engrossing as it is gross!

Until 15 March 2020


Photo by Lidia Crisfulli

“All Quiet on the Western Front” at the Vault Festival

Incognito Theatre’s adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s book deserves the acclaim it has already received for bringing a text to the stage in such fine style. The physical theatre the company specialises in is impressive. But a focus on Remarque’s reportage is preserved: there’s a sense of shock about the events of World War I – a trauma the writer lived through – that is carefully retained. Remarque’s often cold presentation of facts, combined with a passion to let the world know what he experienced, prove a powerful driving force.

Directed by Roberta Zuric, with that all-important choreography from Zac Nemorin, the style of movement sees the five performers frequently mirroring one another or creating short-hand gestures to evoke characters or actions. The idea of the soldiers as animalistic or as automatons is conveyed with marvellous efficiency. The scenes of battle are impressive, and the athletic prowess of the performers is fantastic. But the technique proves just as effective with quieter moments, revealing an intimacy between these brothers-in-arms. Shared glimpses of care and attention prove especially moving.

Taking the lead role as the narrator, Paul, gives Charlie MacVicar the chance to shine – his delivery of the pain, boredom and camaraderie experienced are all good, while the moments when Remarque challenges his audience (or at least those who stayed at home) really stand out. Special mention too for Angus Castle-Doughty, Incognito’s artistic director, playing the young Albert and the company’s older mess man Kat. But All Quiet on the Western Front is the definition of an ensemble show. Success comes from these troops working together; sharing not just the precisely directed movements but a sense of conviction about the story that they are telling.

Until 8 March 2020


“V & V” at the Vault Festival

While historical dramas aren’t to all tastes, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West make good subjects. The genius writer and her poetess-garden-designing lover are a biographer’s dream. Yet mixing their story with a tale of modern dating sounds tricky to me, a clear case of taking on too much and trying too hard to be relevant. Which goes to show you how wrong I can be… V & V proves to be a double treat that’s not to be missed.

The show is a quadruple achievement as two actors perform four roles flawlessly. EM Williams and Heather Wilkins are superb as the famous Bloomsbury couple and, in the present day, Lottie and Mia. Switches in time and parallels in the stories are dealt with impeccably by Misha Pinnington whose direction, like her writing of the play, is clear, concise and entertaining.

Heather Wilkins and EM Williams in V & V at the Vault Festival
Heather Wilkins and EM Williams

The epistolary form reveals the course of the two relationships with intensity, creating an intimate complicity with the audience. The beautiful letters between Woolf and Sackville-West are compared to online courting to great effect. Williams and Wilkins smoulder with Edwardian sexual repression one minute and show themselves superb comedians the next. Pinnington’s use of the letters shows her skill at editing – the material is wonderful. Meanwhile, the texted conversations turn into great crowd pleasers: from sexting and ghosting to deliberation over kisses and exclamation marks. The energy, and jokes, are great, while it’s fascinating to see how communication, and romance, has both changed and stayed the same.

V & V isn’t all light. Everybody knows how Virginia’s story ended (she must be one of the famous of suicides), while Lottie and Mia face problems, too. If I’d have liked Pinnington to provide a more overtly optimistic end for her contemporary character it only goes to show how attached I became to them; the restraint (OK, maybe realism) shown provides an emotional conclusion that packs a punch.

Pinnington’s skill is to show both differences and similarities between the couples so effortlessly. There’s no trace of period kitsch (zero trug count) or modern stereotypes. Four different women, all well delineated, and two very different periods in time are depicted with a light touch, while the common theme of love is explored with both humour and sensitivity. It all adds up to one great show.

Until 8 March 2020


Photos by Ali Wright

“Father’s Son” at the Vault Festival

James Morton’s helpful title prepares us for the topic of his nicely focused piece. The playwright achieves an impressive amount in three entertaining scenes, less than an hour in length.

Spaced between 1974 and 2018, we see three fathers and sons having difficult conversations. The set-up serves as a fine showcase for the talents of its two performers. Mark Newsome plays the fathers with gruff touches along with plenty of confusion and fear that make the roles frequently touching. In truth, Newsome isn’t quite old enough for the parts, but he rises to the challenge. Kenny Fullwood plays the teenage sons and is better cast, bringing truth to a similar range of emotions.

Father's Son at The Vault Festival photo by Ali Wright

There’s no doubt Morton agrees with the perennially discussed crisis of masculinity. But, blissfully, there’s little trace of therapy groups or theories behind his writing so that the dramatic situations he presents have an authentic feel. The dialogue could be worked on, the script being too quick to give the characters’ speeches, so a sense of conversation suffers. Maybe director Carla Kingham, who has done a good job overall, could help here?

It’s Morton’s plotting that is his forte. The trio of scenarios reveal themselves well – you want to know what’s going on – showing variety, particularly for Fullwood, and plenty of tension. Connections between the scenes provide another level to ponder on but are understated – shadows rather than statements – showing impressive restraint on Morton’s part. There’s an evocative air to the show that is questioning rather than proscriptive, indicating an exciting maturity to the writing.

Until 28 February 2020


Photo by Ali Wright

“The Future is Mental” at the Vault Festival

I like the idea of presenting a show of short plays. And citing Black Mirror and Killing Eve as inspirations shows playwright Rosie de Vekey has a keen eye for popular trends. But if your event is a selection of sketches, any response is bound to count hits and misses. Regrettably, the tally here is poor.

There’s a clear standout piece called ‘Decluttering’, a prize-winning short story driven by a neat, topical, idea. Let’s just say I knew there was a reason to worry about the Marie Kondo trend. Suzy de Lezameta does well in the role of a woman who takes tidying up too far. Another story, ‘Mood Lighting’, has the germ of a good idea, where our feelings displayed to the world by a colour-coded bracelet – the mind boggles nicely.

As for the other four pieces, the verdict has to be a fail. The ideas feel old and clichéd: a silly satire on social media with a beyond the grave twist that lacks impact, a paranoid monologue about artificial intelligence and a couple of weak political satires, one of which riffs on Logan’s Run (and that’s from a long time ago). The attempts by De Vekey to pick up on trends and concerns – even if they are justified – don’t have enough originality to really make us think.

The delivery doesn’t help De Vekey’s writing, and directing her own work may have been a mistake. Too many small roles lead to a relatively large cast looking lost. And a series of nervous performances results in too many uncomfortable moments. It’s a mix of painful diffidence and overcompensation on the part of a cast that seems poorly handled. Even worse, little here shows promise for development. I’m afraid the majority of the scenes just don’t have a future.

Until 23 February 2020