VAULT 2023: the best new work at London’s VAULT festival

Vault festival

VAULT Festival, London’s biggest arts and entertainment festival, is now underway in Waterloo, where it runs until 19 March. With hundreds of events taking place throughout the eight weeks of the festival, including theatre, comedy, cabaret, immersive and VR experiences, family shows, late-night parties and more, there’s something for everyone. And to celebrate the publication of Plays from VAULT 6, an exciting collection of five of the best plays from the festival, we asked the authors whose work is featured in the anthology to tell us a bit about their play, and what VAULT means to them – plus, at the bottom, a few handy tips on what to see at this year’s festival…

Sellman-Leava, JoeJoe Sellman-Leava on his play Fanboy:

I’ve always loved Nintendo games. And superheroes. In my early teens I got into The Lord of the Rings and Warhammer in quite a big way. For some, such childhood obsessions fade away, but I continued to be very into one or other of them. In late 2019, I started to wonder why this might be. Why was I so readily giving my time and money to play, watch or read the things I loved as a kid, or the various remakes, reboots, spin-offs and adaptations of them? Why were so many other adults doing the same? Why was talking about these things, with such passion and in such depth, the closest thing men like me got to discussing our feelings with one another? And why did those discussions so often become hateful or abusive online?

Fanboy tries to answer some of these questions. It begins as a sort of fan letter to all the things I love to geek-out about – Star Wars, The Muppet Christmas Carol and Donkey Kong Country, to name a few – and then asks why my generation is so obsessed with its own childhood. It examines the force of nostalgia, not just in entertainment but in our politics too (‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ are both slogans that invite people to think back to an imagined vision of the past). It also examines heroes, why and how we worship them, as well as loneliness, mental health, and male friendship.

Fanboy is a solo show – with a twist! I don’t want to spoil anything (I hate spoilers), but there’s a device in the show which is used to play with our experience of time and the theme of nostalgia, and the creative team and I are really proud of it.

It means a lot to bring Fanboy to VAULT Festival, because this is where the show first found its feet. It had a series of work-in-progress performances at VAULT 2020, before that festival had to close due to Covid. The team and I were busy tweaking things during the day, performing in the evenings, then chatting to audiences afterwards over a pint – it was a great way to learn more about what worked in the show, and what needed further work. Like lots of others, we had to pause development on the show. The festival has been sorely missed over the last few years, so it feels great to bring the finished show back here for VAULT 2023.

Click here to book for Fanboy, 7–12 March

Fanboy


Saul Boyer & Eloka Obi

Saul Boyer and Eloka Obi on their play Five Years with the White Man:

Five Years with the White Man is the first theatrical adaptation of the life and work of Augustus Boyle Chamberlayne Merriman-Labor (or ABC), a Sierra-Leonean satirist who came to London at the beginning of the twentieth century to make his name as the greatest writer of his generation. Navigating heartbreak, prejudice and financial destitution, he published the deliciously urbane and gloriously funny Britons Through Negro Spectacles in 1909, detailing his experiences in London. His observations about British culture and all its contradictions feel as prescient now as ever.

Saul first stumbled across ABC’s story while researching an original TV project set in Edwardian Soho. The story seemed too big to play a bit-part in that original project – it demanded a starring role. So Saul brought the story to the team. At that point, ABC’s book Britons had not yet been marked for republication by Penguin – and we all felt this real sense of injustice. Here was a comic work, a witty work, by such an urbane and confident voice, dealing virtuosically with first-hand experience of structural and economic racial injustice, gender-based prejudice – frankly, ignorance in all its forms. And it had been forgotten. Lost to the record. Invisible to the canon. It really felt like the authorial perspective was a twenty-first-century one – which was striking, particularly given the edition of the book that we had then was published by Forgotten Books, which specialises in the publication of obscure and out-of-print works.

That discovery was the real jumping-off point. It led us to Danell Jones’ wonderful biography of ABC, and then to research his other works. As we began to write the play, we quickly realised that our take on ABC’s story could never be a straightforward, biopic-style adaptation – his work is far too mischievous and genre-defying for that. We felt strongly that we wanted to do something innovative – something that spoke more directly to the present. We discussed a lot of genre-defying shows – seven methods of killing kylie jenner and many others – and felt there was room for a little metatheatricality in the storytelling. We wanted some kind of modern mediation of these complex themes – it seemed only fair to the wonderfully variegated source material. Competing with the bravura comic style and emotional depth of Merriman-Labor is a challenge – one that forced us to dig deep as writers. Our play begins as a straightforward story, but as the piece progresses we see another layer emerge: that of the performer himself. Soon these two stories – one modern, one historical – begin to respond to and coincide with each other in unexpected ways. The play is like an epic in miniature, touching on deep themes of love, loss and identity. It’s certainly a challenge for the performer, really putting them through their paces!

VAULT festival has always been such a vibrant exhibition of emerging voices in our national theatre ecology. The sheer energy, excitement, and progressive quality of the work makes it a bubbling cauldron of creativity. You feel that the spirit of fringe theatre is alive and well. The work feels fresh, artistically engaged and on the experimental side. In short: it’s a destination for the curious. A place to be inspired. Artists at VAULT are genuinely experimenting and pushing the envelope, in terms of form – and the kinds of stories platformed and told are ahead of the curve. As a company, we discussed long and hard where would be the best place to showcase this work on its very first outing. In the end, there was no other choice – and we can genuinely think of no better place for this show to debut than at VAULT!

Click here to book for Five Years with the White Man, 28 Feb–5 March

Five Years


Jassi, ZahraZahra Jassi on her play Honour-Bound:

My play Honour-Bound is a solo show about honour-based violence (HBV) and anti-Blackness in South Asian communities. It follows Simran, on her way to City Airport because she’s fleeing HBV, and the journey she’s been on over the last two years from meeting her now-boyfriend, her relationship with her family, and the friend she lost to HBV.

I was inspired to write the play during my time at drama school, after my teacher asked us to write 10-minute solo shows over Christmas. I enjoy making theatre that focuses on race and culture and working with Black and Brown artists, and this was difficult to do within the curriculum as the only student of colour on my course. So Honour-Bound was born and was, for me, an exploration of a South Asian issue, even though HBV and anti-Blackness occur in other communities.

I feel very grateful to be at VAULT 2023. Having such a fantastic opportunity straight after graduating has been incredible and has allowed me to keep up the creative momentum from drama school that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to. I feel very privileged to be at the festival among 500+ fantastic shows, and hopefully this experience will allow me to connect with artists, especially Black and Brown artists, also bringing shows to VAULT.

Click here to book for Honour-Bound, 7–10 March

Honour Bound


Elisabeth Lewerenz

Elisabeth Lewerenz on her play How We Begin:

My play How We Begin is about two women, Helen and Diana, who’ve been friends since uni, have settled into their adult lives – and then fall in love with each other. Neither of them expected that to happen, and Diana already has a boyfriend, so they kind of try to explore that new part of their lives in secret – which, as you can imagine, does not go entirely smoothly.

It’s not strictly speaking an autobiographical play, but it’s based on a situation from my own life. I’m bisexual myself and I didn’t figure that out until my mid-twenties. I think that’s not uncommon for queer women, but it’s not spoken about that often, so I really wanted to dig deeper into what it means to come out (to yourself and to the people around you) when you’ve already settled into your adult life a little bit – and how it throws things off-balance for a while.

I wrote the first scene of How We Begin when I was applying for the VAULT New Writers Programme in 2019, so it’s an absolute joy to have it programmed at the festival this year. I love the intimacy of the VAULT tunnels, so it feels like a very natural home for the play, which really relies on the performers’ connection to the audience.

Click here to book for How We Begin, 14–19 Feb

How We Begin


Louis Emmitt-SternLouis Emmitt-Stern on his play I Fucked You in My Spaceship:

Part romantic comedy, part psychological thriller, part science fiction, my play I Fucked You in My Spaceship follows two couples: Leo & Dan, and Anna & Emily. For different reasons, they both invite a third person into their relationship. What happens next depends on how you choose to read the story. Fundamentally, I think the play is interested in the idea of abduction. Someone coming into your life and invading your home, your relationship, your sense of self. Whether that’s literal or metaphorical is up to each audience.

When relationships have to reject traditional or heteronormative ways of navigating children or sex or family or intimacy, the rule book goes out the window. There’s new uncharted territory, and we’re not exactly sure what the boundaries are yet – which can be hilarious, but also quite scary. I think these characters walk that tightrope between funny and fearful. In many ways, it’s my anti-nuclear family play. But it’s not presenting a utopian or dystopian alternative. It’s just as lonely and messy and awkward and farcical.

Live theatre wasn’t accessible to me growing up. My love and enthusiasm for drama was encouraged largely through reading plays. I so vividly remember reading Lucy Burke’s Glitter Punch in Plays from VAULT 3; the way the narrative gripped me, the twist at the end that knocked me out, the rawness and inventiveness of the storytelling that feels unique to the shows at VAULT Festival.

To have my show on at VAULT Festival now, and to be published in the anthology that introduced me to it all? Yeah, it’s pretty immense. I just feel very grateful.

Click here to book for I Fucked You in My Spaceship, 7–10 Feb

I Fucked You


What to see at VAULT Festival 2023…

With the festival opening this week, we asked our authors which shows from this year’s programme they were most excited to see. Check out their picks:

Joe Sellman-Leava: I’m excited to see lots of other things at VAULT 2023. Particularly the other plays in Plays from VAULT 6, as well as Liv Ello’s Swarm (710 Feb), Joz Norris’ Blink (34 Feb), and Hexenhammer (1011 Feb).

Saul Boyer and Eloka Obi: There are so many shows to pick from, but a few honourable mentions: we’re really looking forward to Strange Fruit Cabaret, written and performed the wickedly talented Black Venus in Furs and Mars De Lite (11 Mar), Wonder Drug written and performed by the brilliant Charlie Merriman (15 Feb3 Mar) and Hildegard Von Bingen by Kristen Winters and BoundByTheatre (2126 Feb).

Zahra Jassi: I’m excited to see Right of Way by Beth Bowden (2126 Feb), Hear Me Now by Burnt Orange Theatre (1417 Feb), Under Heaven’s Eyes by Resistance Theatre Company (712 Feb), Asian Girls in Therapy by Gurjot Dhaliwal and Megan Soh (28 Feb), The Ballerina by Khaos (31 Jan5 Feb), Patient Vultures by Daydreamer Productions (1417 Mar), Maud by Sic Theatre (2125 Feb) and For A Brief Moment and Never Again Since by Judi Amato (2829 Jan).

Elisabeth Lewerenz: I’m super-excited about all the other plays from this volume, what a selection! My friend Matt Neubauer, who did the VAULT New Writers Programme with me, is bringing his genre-bending western play Spur to the festival (49 Mar), which I can’t wait to see. And as a lover of drag, I’m also excited about drag king collective Pecs’ Icons (25 Feb) (shoutout to my drag dad, Loose Willis!) and the drag wrestling show Fist Club – Beyond Vaulterdome (26 Feb). And so, so many plays, including SNAIL by Bebe Sanders (28 Feb5 Mar), in Good Spirits by KT Miles, Ana Smoleanu & Greta Rilletti-Zaltieri (1819 Feb) and Thirsty by Stephanie Martin (31 Jan5 Feb).

Louis Emmitt-Stern: Aside from the other four fantastic plays included in Plays from VAULT 6, I’m excited to see the work of this year’s Tony Craze Award shortlist: GUSH by Abby-Vicky Russell (712 Mar), and Mwansa Phiri’s new play Waiting for a Train at the Bus Stop (29 Jan5 Feb). James McDermott returns to London with his new show Acid’s Reign (1419 Mar), a drag-cabaret about climate change and the queerness of nature. Actor and writer Sanjay Lago’s debut stand-up show Love Me like a Chai Tea Latte (78 Feb). Finally, Con-Version (1419 Mar) by Rory Thomas-Howes, the multi-hyphenated and multi-talented actor-writer-producer who is going from strength to strength at the moment.

Plays from VAULT 6Plays from VAULT 6, containing five of the best plays from this year’s festival, is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £13.59 (RRP £16.99), visit our website now.

Collections from previous VAULT Festivals are also available on our website here.

VAULT Festival 2023 runs from 24 January – 19 March at the Vaults, Waterloo, London. Visit the festival website here.

Thank you to the authors of Plays from VAULT 6 for their contributions to this blog.

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