Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Vault Festival

This is a first for me. I'm writing this blog - about the Vault Festival - while at the festival itself. Ok, so I've posted it today. From home. Several days later. BUT, I promise you, hand on heart, the content is all written (even that last bit!) with a beer nearby and chattering hoards aplenty all around me, in the venue's Underbar on a Friday evening (20 February to be precise). Smart phones are wonderful things aren't they?

The entranceway in to the Underbar
Anyway, back to the blog. Here I am, having a few drinks post-show, during my second visit to what has now become one of my favourite arts festivals. I discovered the festival last year and subsequently attended several shows from the line-up on offer. It was a pretty diverse and wide ranging programme back then, but I was amazed to learn when I saw this year's (the Vault's third by the way) that the number of individual events has pretty much doubled this time round. Over 100 artistic groups are involved. There is something for everyone; from dance to comedy, music to drama, even a helping of opera and much, much more. Check out their website for the full listing. It runs for six weeks, from late January to early March.

Early evening in Leake Street and already a performer is out doing his thing
The approach to the venue is an experience in itself: Leake Street, off York Road, a long tunnel covered in graffiti art, was initially created during the "Cans Festival" organised by Banksy in May 2008. The road was pedestrianised shortly afterwards and has remained so ever since. The street artists are always out, creating new work, and the smell of spray paint fills the nostrils. Many people take pictures of the work or simply stand and observe the artists. Even late at night, the artists are out in force continuing to paint, along with a variety of street performers, and audiences gather to watch them, often on the way home from their evening's entertainment at The Vaults.

Late night entertainment in Leake Street, as passers-by stop to watch the street performers
The festival is unthemed, which allows it greater flexibility in what it can offer and is one of its key strengths. All the shows I've seen here so far - this year and last - have demonstrated that diversity and it's undoubtedly one of the main reasons I look forward to returning.

Another strength, helping to create different degrees of nuance to the visual aspect of the performances, is in the venue itself. The Vaults is a network of tunnels and performance spaces situated beneath Waterloo rail station. It covers an area of some 30,000 square feet and uses the space very effectively. Each of the performance areas are individually named; The Studio, The Cage, The Cavern, The Pit, etc. Some are smaller in size, others more expansive. Everything is stripped bare. Plain walls exposing brickwork, stone floors which are not always even and, I remember at one show I came to last year after a bad rainfall, there were small puddles of water that had collected in the uneven ridges around the flagstones. It all contributes to the ambience. In many ways, it helps draw you even more into the performances, many of which are interactive in nature anyway. I should point out while it occurs to me that within these spaces proper stage lighting and sound is implemented, along with various stage sets and props. In case that wasn't entirely evident from my description! And of course both lighting and sound add more to the general atmosphere. 

A beer is at hand as I continued to write this blog!
I'm also impressed that the venue has not rested on its laurels in terms of its layout. The performance spaces and bar have been redesigned and relocated from where they were last year, giving people like myself, who attended in 2014, a whole new perspective and a general sense of it feeling 'different'. Which of course the programme is. But they could so easily have just configured the floor space identically to how it was in 2014. I hope this approach continues next year.

The organisers are clearly supportive of upcoming performers and theatre companies and another pleasure for me is in discovering original talent being given the opportunity to shine. There is so much out there and it's great to see them getting the chance to show what they can do. Other acts are more well established. It's a good mix. I imagine that from time to time it can be a somewhat thankless task playing to some audiences for these touring performers. Here, the audiences are warmly appreciative.

A great space for partying into the early hours
If theatre isn't your thing, the festival is also running a series of late night events, at which you can have fun into the early hours. The Underbar is a pretty funky addition to the tunnel space and a great place to party. Or just come along to hang out and soak up the vibe with a beer or two.

It really is a different kind of night out, so I'd urge you to come and experience it before it ends for another year on 8 March. I'll certainly be returning for a show or two before then.
A cosy little nook near the bar to hang out with friends
And yes, I do not lie, every word of this blog was written at the venue on the night of my second show this year. I've been moving around the venue as I've been writing and these last few lines are being composed whilst seated in a deckchair in a room just off the main bar area! I'll be leaving soon for my last train, but already a live band is setting up ready to play on the main stage in the Underbar as another Lates event commences. If only I still lived in London! Of course, if someone would offer me a bed for the night ...

Entrance to The Vaults in Leake Street
Oh, and I'm fairly certain that earlier this evening I caught sight of the author and journalist Will Self, so you might even bump into a celeb - who knows? I'm no celeb myself of course, but do feel free to come up and say hello if you see me!

The Vault Festival. On until 8 March. Get a ticket. You really don't want to wait another year now do you?

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