My first year at the Vault Festival

Where and where was it?

The fifth Vault Festival took place around Waterloo between 28 January – 15 March. It was originally set to end on 22 March but was forced to close early to due the COVID-19 pandemic.

Venues at The Vaults itself were Studio, Pit, Cage, Cavern, Crescent, Forge and Crypt. Outside venues included Network Theatre, The Gift Horse, Hello Darling, and Vaulty Towers.

There were also walks and site-specific immersive events taking place in the immediately surrounding streets, and late events in the Underbar.

How did I get involved?

I decided that as a professional reviewer with my own blogging website, I was in a very good position to support as many shows and companies as possible.

I’m not an accredited reviewer for Vault Festival, but am very active on Twitter and am on many PR company mailing lists, so my strategy was threefold:

1. Approach shows directly where I was interested in reviewing them

2. Accept PR invitations where possible, if the show seemed of interest to me

3. Put out a tweet stating my availability to review shows, and respond to those I could fit in

My main areas of interest in fringe theatre are shows which are female-led, LGBTQIA, or about mental health. I also enjoy musicals and political shows.

I eventually had a list of thirty shows to see, of which I saw twenty-seven before the early closure, and I ran interviews for a remaining fifteen.

All were promoted numerous times on social media to my audience on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Bloglovin, and Mix.

What did I think of the venues?

Studio – by far the warmest and the least damp. Good sightlines, although for all but one show I chose a seat on the front row. Excellent acoustics and comfortable seating.

Pit – very damp, but atmospheric especially for productions using lighting effects. Bench seating which was OK for an hour at a time.

Cage – interesting use of space, but strong smell of damp. Uncomfortable bench seating but good sightlines and acoustics. Projections didn’t always work that well onto brick walls.

Cavern – very versatile venue, long, wet and rather creepy. By far the most uncomfortable seating, with hard benches. Started to flood in the final week due to all the rain. Very effective space for tech-heavy effects.

Crescent – acoustics and sightlines not fantastic but chairs were comfortable. This is the largest capacity venue but is less flexible for staging.

Forge – excellent space for music, but face on central seating is better than the sides. Has an intimacy because seating is confined to one part of a large space (the other is a bar and additional small stage).

Crypt – very cold on first visit, better on second. Requires leaving and re-entering the building to gain access. A rather creepy space,good for stories and comedy.

Network – damp and takes a while to find, being hidden down a Network Rail tunnel off Waterloo station. A traditional space with comfortable end-on seating.

I did not visit the other venues this year.

What worked well?

For me the bag checking, ticket checking, and general atmosphere of The Vaults all went without a hitch.

26/27 shows ran to time and without any technical stoppages.

Toilets were clean and signage was good free water was provided at the bars, and the show publicity leaflets were plentiful.

Staff were friendly, chatty and helpful at all times at all venues.

What could have been done better?

Audiences for the Studio were sometimes sent through the main bag check, but at other times bag checks were done from the venue queue itself. Clarity and consistency would be appreciated.

On one evening (21 Feb) there was a huge crowd in both the bars and in the connecting corridor leading to most of the venues. This seemed to cause confusion and delays in some of the queues.

It was good to see some quiet break-out spaces across the Festival but more would be appreciated to avoid too much noise at times.

The Vault passport was largely offering rewards based on visiting the bars or late events, rather than, say, x number of shows in a venue or in a particular type of genre.

What about the clientele?

The Vaults directors have stated their core clientele are aged 20-30, however the Festival did attract a range of ages depending on the show. It had a young “feel” to it, but not exclusively.

And the shows?

For the 27 shows I saw, I created a Vault Festival rating scheme specifically for them: Wow (4-5 stars), Meow (3 stars), Furred Brow (2 stars). No shows were awarded the latter rating, and every show was successful to some degree.

Broadly they fell into the following categories:

1. One person, autobiographical (e.g. Madame Ovary, First Time, Love (Watching Madness))

2. One person, non-autobiographical (e.g. When We Died, On Arriving, Tinted)

3. Musical and gig theatre (e.g. Sugar Coat and Ride)

4. Comedy or spoken word (e.g. Too Pretty to Punch, Heroine, Head of State)

5. Dramas with two or more cast members (e.g. how we love, Essence, V+15, V&V, If This Is Normal, Dumbledore is So Gay, The 4th Country, Beige, Zoo, Life and Death of a Journalist, Bin Juice)

6. Anything else! (e.g. Sky in the Pie, Take Care, Blow, Border Control, Closed Lands)

Is it a friendly festival?

Yes. I would recommend, however, if you are new to it to do some research in advance about the location, venues and where they are in the space, and also to go early on your first visit to get a feel of the place and where you feel most comfortable.

Do spend some time in the Leake Street Tunnels, too, as there is some fantastic street art and graffiti there.

What was the best thing about it?

The friendly companies and performers. And the quality of the work they have on offer.

And the worst?

The damp!

Which were your favourite shows?

I hate to single out any in particular, but I did recommend First Time, Madame Ovary, Ride, Too Pretty To Punch, Dumbledore is So Gay, Zoo and Sugar Coat to others during their runs.

Would you go again?

Absolutely yes. I’ll clear my diary as soon as the dates are announced. I’ll also keep an eye on companies whose shows I couldn’t fit in.