Hidden away in a maze of disused railway arches under Waterloo station, you could find an almost three month long smorgasbord of fringe theatre, comedy and music – VAULT festival.
The festival strives to create an accessible playing ground for creators to explore, collaborate and innovate, and for audiences to broaden their horizons and discover hidden gems. With over three hundred artistic groups presenting their work at very reasonable prices – with two-for-one deals and plenty of tickets going for a tenner, they appear to have reached that goal to the fullest, there truly was something to be found for everyone. The graffitied walls of the tunnels, the colourful tube lighting guiding you to the respective performance areas, the excited buzz floating around, the entire atmosphere surrounding VAULT exudes a spontaneity that was highly infectious. We got to experience three different shows – and while each of them had their own strengths and faults, they all fitted perfectly in the anything-goes vibe the festival has established, and were definitely worth checking out. We bundled the reviews into one article, just to drive the point home – if you’re ever in London while VAULT is going on, check out as much as you can, variety is definitely one of their strong points.
mostly harmless… (Tom Hall) – The Lifeboat
Locked in a cage, in a ramshackle hold of a bounty hunter’s spaceship, with alarms blaring, the oxygen supply running low, and very limited room in the escape pod – it’s clear we found ourselves in a tight spot. In any situation, we aren’t exactly what you’d call experts at room escapes – but joining in for this mission had been a last minute decision. Two or so pre dinner cocktails, plus the fact that we postponed said dinner until after our space adventure did nothing to sharpen our wit.
The gimmick for this escape room is that you are competing for a spot on the lifeboat, with two teams of four locked into adjacent cages, and the promise of survival for the fastest group. But, with no teammates to fall back on (it was just us two on this run), the bounty hunter took mercy on us – by locking us up in a single cage, and providing gratuitous hints after it became painfully clear that puzzle room logic was not our forte.
We never stood a chance. Still locked in that cage, sirens going off, the oxygen ran out, and the escape pod left without us. But, it didn’t really matter, we had a blast. The puzzles were varied, well thought-out, and truthfully, really not impossible to solve. I can imagine that it would be a very tight race with two teams of competent players. Huge props to the bounty hunter/game master, he did a wonderful and hilarious job of improvising his way around our ineptitude, and he really seemed to be enjoying himself during our struggle. His way of not taking it too seriously, along with the setting of the room, felt very Douglas Adams-y, which given the name of the company most likely isn’t a huge coincidence.
Not having done too many escape rooms, I can’t really compare the quality of what The Lifeboat offered to similar experiences. I can only judge the experience on face value – it was hilarious and tense in equal measure, for a bargain price. Plenty of reason to be adrift in space.
Chivaree Circus – Becoming Shades
Marketed as a “dark, immersive circus”, it was mainly the imagery of a mysterious creature with luminous eyes that dragged me towards Becoming Shades. A reimagination of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, performed by an all-female cast of acrobats and fire performers and supported by live music during the performance, it’s hard not to be intrigued by the concept.
So, here’s us, being ushered into one of the Vaults performance areas, black masks covering our mouths and noses as we entered the gritty playground of Chivaree Circus. What followed over the next 90 minutes or so was a stunning display of acrobatic prowess, mysterious circus theatre and dark choreography. Having not read up on the myth of Persephone, I didn’t manage to follow the specifics of the story that was being told, but the themes were obvious nonetheless – empowerment, struggle, wanting, lust, resistance – without words, Chivaree Circus easily conveyed emotion through the performance.
And yes, it’s true, this is one of these shows that uses ‘immersive’ as a buzzword. The audience moves through the space along with the performance, but there isn’t much going on in terms of immersion. The masks were somewhat gimmicky, and the better part of the audience had removed them long before the end of the show. During an intermission that felt a bit out of place at first, breaking the pace of the performance, the audience was allowed to explore the theatre space freely – and it was here that I did manage to see some immersive performer-audience interaction. While most of the attendees gathered around the bar, I found myself being lured into a cups-and-ball scam by minions of Hades, and had a strange encounter in a mysterious, illuminated forest.
Still, although I wouldn’t call it immersive, the show was absolutely breathtaking, stringing together wow moments, as truly impressive aerial acrobatics were alternated by fire choreography and emotive pauses of quiet storytelling, each of them executed to perfection. Audiovisually, the show is a marvel. Dark wings unfolding as flames danced around, with piercing illuminated eyes guiding us through the underworld – the music beautifully punctuating what is happening in front of your eyes. I’d have no trouble recommending the show – just don’t expect an immersive experience.
NOTE – In the No Proscenium review of this show, the writer reported performers taking personal possessions of the audience without asking, and using those in small comedic routines – during what I suppose is the intermission of the show. This seems to have been adjusted, I witnessed nothing like it.
The Tom Sawyer Effect – The Pendulum
I found myself in a weirdly familiar predicament. Hooded, hands bound, and following instructions of a stranger. I really should reevaluate my life choices, this is happening way too often. Donning an orange jumpsuit, I was a member of the resistance, and in my mind laid a secret, a password that they, the Foundation, wanted to get out of me. A neat and storydriven way of introducing a safeword – as revealing the password would end the experience.
It was just me and one of their operatives, determined to get that secret out of me. And since run-of-the-mill torture is so old fashioned, they presented me with a novel device, the Pendulum, capable of showing me my darkest fears, a form of psychological torture that was surefire to break me. It looked suspiciously like a VR headset, but what do I know.
Over the next ten minutes, I was subjected to an alteration between nightmare material, flashbacks to what happened to the previous resistance agent, and moments where I was pulled out of the barrage of virtual torment and brought back into my actual environment. By the time the show ended, I had taken a liking to my role as a resistance agent, and felt a immediate distrust towards my rescuer – a sure sign that they managed to get to me in some way, or at the very least, that I was enjoying myself.
It was a pleasant surprise how much actor-based interaction there was in this show, I had expected a VR experience, but it was way more than this, and it was truly good fun. The ‘show you your darkest fears’ VR bits were leaning towards the cheesy end of the spectrum, the implementation of physical sensation along with the imagery was a bit inconsistent, and the show was plagued by technical problems (we had to reschedule our first show because of the VR set not being in the mood to cooperate), but as they say on their website, this was a prototype, a proof of concept for larger experiences. I can immediately see a number of scenarios how they could take this to the next level. As it was now, they had a fun, immersive show with a good, story-driven reason for the VR to be there, and albeit slightly cheesy, it was a good complement to the physical show. I’m sure this was a great learning school for their bigger ideas, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.