VAULT 2020: the best new work at London’s VAULT festival

VAULT Festival, London’s biggest arts and entertainment festival, is now underway in Waterloo, where it runs until 22 March. With hundreds of events taking place throughout the eight weeks of the festival, including theatre, comedy, cabaret, immersive experiences, family shows, late-night parties, pop-up events and more, there’s something for everyone. And to celebrate the publication of Plays from VAULT 5, 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…

Tatty Hennessy on her play Something Awful, 28 Jan–2 Feb:

In 2014 in a small town in Wisconsin, three teenage girls went on a walk in the woods. Only two of them were meant to come back. Those two had lured their friend to the forest with the intention of murder – a sacrifice to appease the Slenderman, a fictional online horror story these girls had some to believe with a powerful and devastating conviction. The girl survived her ordeal. The story of her attack went viral. Sony made a blockbuster movie about the Slenderman. It tanked.

I was enthralled and disturbed by this story, of a viral online horror meme – the sort I remembered vividly from my own teenage years – seeming to reach out beyond the screen and become real, really real, firstly in those girls’ minds and then in their actions. It seemed to me a story of the peculiar intensity of female teenage friendship and enmity, of the increasingly fine line between stories and facts, of how our online worlds change our offline selves. And of women and violence – as consumers and perpetrators. Why are so many women drawn to stories of the worst things that can happen to us? How do young women adapt and cope in a world that is legitimately threatening?

I didn’t really know what to do with those questions, or with the unease they gave me, so I wrote a play about them.  Something Awful is not a story about those sad, shocking events in Wisconsin six years ago. It’s a complete fiction, but one that owes something to facts.

It also felt like an opportunity to do something we rarely do on stage, and about which I’m passionate: to take the lives of teenage girls as serious subjects for artistic examination. And I hope it’s also funny, because I don’t think I’ve ever met a teenage girl who wasn’t funny. Hopefully it will scare you, and make you think again about what we should be scared of.


Charlotte Chimuanya on her play Second Home, 26–28 Feb:

Second Home is about a crisis of identity, even in a place of solace. It’s the story of a mixed-race girl at age ten, fifteen and twenty, spending her summers in Ireland.

The plot is based on my own experiences growing up; I’m half Nigerian and half Irish. This isn’t a complete biography, but I have given away some of my most embarrassing stories of unrequited love. 

We follow the protagonist, Naomi, through her formative years. Dealing with the usual: boys, insecurities and underage drinking. However she has a dark cloud hanging over her, which we watch her tackle as it expands.

It is extremely important to me that I produce work that highlights black women and lifts them up, because we live in a society that treats black women with the least integrity.

I’m delighted to have my debut play showcased at VAULT this year. It’s a hub of fresh and unique talent, so I’m in great company and there’s always a sparkle in the air.


Rosa Hesmondhalgh on her play Madame Ovary, 18–23 Feb:

Madame Ovary is a one-person monologue following a 23 year old as she attempts to reboot her life at the start of the new year. She makes resolutions about taking care of her body, finding love and creating art that will dent the world. But before January’s even over, she’s diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and her three resolutions take on a bit of a different meaning.

This play is about my own experience with ovarian cancer. I had to give up acting during chemotherapy, which had been my one and only THING for so long. I’d always privately written, but to give my brain something to do from my sick bed I decided to write a blog – called Madame Ovary – about what was happening to me, with the hope to raise some awareness about cancer in young adults (34 are diagnosed every day). Once I got the all clear (and finished celebrating), I wanted to turn that blog into a show. Which was dead hard. I met Adam Small, AD of Wildchild Productions, who agreed to direct and produce it, and helped me get it to Edinburgh. He was the human version of a cup of tea – he calmed me down but lifted me up, and helped make Madame Ovary what it is now.

I’m so excited to be at VAULT 2020. My first time at VAULT was seeing my best friend Rebecca Tebbett in James Huntrods’ incredible play about climate change activism, Cause, in 2018. I’d just finished my second round of chemo and was shedding my hair, full of mouth ulcers and not really allowed to leave the house – but getting to see my best pal in such a brilliant play as part of such a fantastic festival was a really nice reminder that theatre was still there, and I hadn’t left that bit behind despite being ill. Being part of it, two years later, amongst artists I admire so much, feels really special.


Zoë Templeman-Young and Sam McLaughlin from Écoute Theatre, on their play Take Care, 10–15 Mar:

SAM: Take Care is inspired by – and comes straight from the mouths of – the many unheard voices of carers for older people. It’s an explosive piece of documentary theatre, and also pretty funny. In a dark way.

ZOE: Yeah, we try and make people feel like it’s okay to laugh, from the beginning. When you’re a carer, your sense of humour becomes pretty sharp.

SAM: In terms of the plot, the play follows Pam as she campaigns to move her mother to a care home that’s closer to her. Along the way, the audience meets many other characters involved in the care system in some way.

ZOE: There might be some familiar voices in there too, some politicians who weren’t as famous a few years ago as they are now…

SAM: Zoë and I have both worked as carers for members of our family – and we saw that there were a whole range of issues not being addressed for carers. We also didn’t fancy doing a 10, 000 word dissertation at University and so we began creating Take Care and interviewing carers. Six years ago now! When we heard we’d be performing it at VAULT 2020, we were over the moon. I think Ross Kemp captured the feeling pretty well when he said: ‘You will never know what that means to me. That is everything. EVERY. THING.’ To sum up – we were delighted. Not least because, through VAULT Festival, we have the opportunity to reach so many more people with these amazing real-life stories of carers.

ZOE: It’s also incredible to be able to contact the carers we interviewed over the years and tell them that not only will their stories be performed at such a prestigious and exciting festival, they’ll also now be appearing in print, in the Nick Hern Books anthology. That was the cherry on top.


Isabel Dixon on her play Heroes, 18–20 Feb:

Heroes is the story of a secret which blows a family apart. It’s also about our heroes (no surprises there) and what we do when the people we idolise do something we feel we can’t forgive.

It’s set in two time frames: 1991, on a night when David Bowie plays a gig in Brixton, and 2016, on the morning of his death. The two timeframes intertwine throughout the play – sometimes both of them playing out onstage at the same time.

I’m a huge Bowie fan – I grew up with his music, it’s a massive part of the fabric of my life – and his death was the first celebrity death that felt genuinely emotional for me. I’m also fascinated by the fact that a lot of those big rock ‘n’ roll stars who shaped the musical landscape got away with doing things which are shocking and taboo. In particular, I remember feeling really conflicted when, just after Bowie’s death, Lori Maddox stated in interviews that she’d had a sexual relationship with him when she was just fourteen.

Since I wrote the play (in 2016/17) the entire #MeToo movement has happened, and many of these issues have come into focus. Can you separate an artist’s life, and some of the terrible things they did, from the art they’ve created?

But at its heart, Heroes is a family story. Sometimes, our idols are people we’re close to. How do you respond when someone you love does something unforgiveable?

I genuinely can’t wait to be at VAULT. It’s such a special place – it’s unlike any other festival you’ll go to, and the fact that it’s in a railway tunnel makes it feel like you’ve stumbled into Wonderland. It’s also genuinely game-changing for artists and audiences alike. It’s magical.


What to see at VAULT Festival 2020…

With this year’s festival about to open on 28 January, we asked our authors which shows from this year’s programme they were most excited to see. Check out their picks:

Tatty Hennessy: Aside from all the excellent plays included in the Nick Hern Books anthology… I’m a huge fan of Barry McStay. His play Vespertilio at VAULT 2019, about lonely bats and lonely men, was beautiful and funny and heartbreaking; it took a story about science and looked at it from a unique and human angle, and I think he’s going to do it again for Mars and space exploration with The First (11–16 Feb). I’m always excited to see PECS (1 Feb) because anything that manages to be both an insightful full-body take down of the rigidity of societal gender norms and a full-on dance party riot at the same time is a winner in my book. And I can’t wait to see Patricia Gets Ready (For a Date With the Man Who Used to Hit Her) (5–9 Feb) because it has probably the best title of the festival and because Martha Watson Allpress is a really exciting writer and I can’t wait to see more from her.

Charlotte Chimuanya: Some of the shows I’m excited to see are: She Is A Place Called Home (3–8 Mar), a collision of culture and religion, with some traditional Nigerian dancing; Pyneapple (17–19 Mar), which looks spicy – I missed its earlier run at The Bunker Theatre, so I’m glad it’s back; and The Cocoa Butter Club (20 Mar) – with a tagline like ‘Decolonise and Re-moisturise’, how could I resist this voguing cabaret act!

Rosa Hesmondhalgh: I’m so excited to see all the other plays published in the Plays from VAULT 5 anthology, particularly Something Awful (28 Jan2 Feb). Also, First Time (28 Jan2 Feb) by Nathaniel Hall. I can’t wait to see my Ed Fringe faves again, LOVE (Watching Madness) (1416 Feb) by Izzy Kabban/SpeakUp Theatre, and Since U Been Gone (49 Feb) by Teddy Lamb who are both making theatre that makes me so excited. I also have a huge performer’s crush on Katie Arnstein’s work, so very excited to see Sticky Door (1116 Feb).

Zoë Templeman-Young & Sam McLaughlin: We’re really looking forward to seeing Imogené: The Improvised Pop Concert (2628 Feb), which is an amazing clowning/pop concert performance by the incredible Delight Creative. Also we’re definitely going to catch On Arriving (49 Feb) by Ivan Faute, directed by Cat Robey and performed by Sophia Eleni. It’s a one-woman show about a young refugee fighting for survival. To be honest, there’s so much exciting work to see we can’t wait to catch as much as possible.

Isabel Dixon: I’m really excited for all the rest of the plays in the Nick Hern Books anthology, it’s an honour to be in the midst of such a great bunch. I also can’t wait for Catherine Kolubayev’s Bin Juice (1015 Mar) (I saw a short version last year and loved it); LOVE (Watching Madness) (1416 Feb) and Mustard Doesn’t Go With Girls (1422 Mar), which were two of my Edinburgh 2019 highlights; The Thelmas’ new shows, Santi & Naz (28 Jan2 Feb) and Notch (1923 Feb); and all three shows from the brilliant Katie Arnstein: Bicycles and Fish (16 Feb), Sexy Lamp (16 Feb) and Sticky Door (1116 Feb).

Plays from VAULT 5, containing five of the best plays from this year’s festival, is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £11.99 (RRP £14.99), visit our website now.

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

VAULT Festival 2020 runs from 28 January – 22 March at the Vaults, Waterloo, London. Visit the festival website here.

‘Authenticity guaranteed’: Robin Belfield on why verbatim theatre is so important right now

Verbatim theatre, fashioned from the actual words spoken by real people, is the perfect antidote to our troubled times, argues Robin Belfield, whose new book Telling the Truth: How to Make Verbatim Theatre is an essential guide for theatre-makers, artists, students and teachers.

If ever there was a time for verbatim theatre, it’s now.

We live in a world that sometimes feels like it’s being overrun by information outlets – television, newspapers, bloggers, social media platforms, the list goes on… I don’t suppose there’s more news, just more channels clamouring for attention. And how much of it can we trust?

There’s been a long-running debate about ‘truth’ in the news. Do we – should we – believe everything we see, read or hear in the news, or via our Facebook feed? In the current climate of ‘fake news’, that debate is hotter than ever. The line between ‘reporting’ and ‘opinion’ is not so much fuzzy as invisible.

I’ve come to believe that verbatim theatre offers the perfect antidote.

Hamlet famously advises the actors that the very purpose of playing “was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature”. And arguably that has always been the theatremaker’s gift – to offer up a reflection of the world to their audience. But in the majority of cases it’s the playwright’s truth that is being reflected: truth filtered through their imagination, metaphor and craft. Of course the best playwrights offer a kind of truth: the accuracy of an impeccably researched historical drama, say; or the emotional or psychological truth laid bare in the behaviour of their fictional characters.

But verbatim theatre is different. By giving actors only the actual words of real people, verbatim theatre is the closest that theatre can get to objective truth – no dramatic licence required. It is neither imagined nor invented; its authenticity is guaranteed because it presents the testimony of those with first-hand experience.

Henry Wyrley-Birch as Neil in a 2015 production of Walking the Chains, commissioned to celebrate the 150th birthday of Clifton Suspension Bridge, written by ACH Smith and directed by Robin Belfield

It would be naïve to think, and wrong of me to suggest, that verbatim theatre is completely free of a ‘filter’. With this kind of theatre, the playwright usually serves as researcher, editor and dramaturg all at once; and in all three roles they are required to make active choices. As researcher, they are often responsible for gathering the material, choosing who to interview and what questions to ask. As editor, they make selections, choosing what to keep in and what to leave out. And as dramaturg, they give the material its shape, choosing what form to present it in, what story to tell.

The verbatim theatre practitioner is mouthpiece and censor all at once. And this is the beautiful challenge.

Little Revolution, Alecky Blythe’s recorded delivery play about the 2011 London Riots

I’ve worked with other people’s words for a long time, and had the privilege of watching and talking to others who have done the same. During that time I realised that, while there are some pretty firm rules which define verbatim theatre, there are many different ways of processing and shaping the raw material from which it is formed. In my book, Telling the Truth, I lift the lid on some of the key verbatim theatre practices, from Alecky Blythe’s ‘recorded delivery‘ method – where actors are fed the verbatim material ‘live’ via an earpiece – to the process developed by Ivan Cutting, whose work with Eastern Angles fuses verbatim testimony with fictional dramatic material.

I love working with artists and students who are new to this work, and over the past few years I’ve developed a number of activities to guide newcomers through the process of working with verbatim material. My book, Telling the Truth, is the realisation of all that work, combining my own experience with an exploration of recent verbatim theatre productions. The book also includes interviews from a number of different practitioners – actors, writers, directors and designers – all offering their insights into the rewards and the responsibilities of handling other people’s words.

Theatre will never entirely rid itself of ‘opinion’ or ‘agenda’. And why would it want to? Theatre of any kind, even verbatim theatre, is an art rather than a science. But at a time when we’re faced by constant cries of ‘fake news’, by the most outrageous distortions and misrepresentations across news channels and at the hearts of our democracies, we can rely on theatre – and perhaps especially verbatim theatre – to interrogate the truth and to help us understand our bewildering world.

The cast of Walking the Chains by ACH Smith, in a production directed by Robin Belfield


Telling the Truth: How to Make Verbatim Theatre by Robin Belfield is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (20% discount), click here.

Also available in the Making Theatre series from Nick Hern Books: Creating Worlds: How to Make Immersive Theatre by Jason Warren.

Photographs by Toby Farrow.