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Feature: Preview of the VAULT Festival – more than the sum of its parts

Posted on 03 February 2014 by Tom Powell


It’s easy to lose of track of what’s happening in a city as frenetically busy as London, where any space is a potential theatre. It’s easy to miss out on the next big thing, or not have time to embark on a crazy adventure. And they could both be right underneath your feet.

The VAULT festival 2014 takes place in the tangle of tunnels underneath Waterloo – the vaults of the old train station. It’s a sprawling, messy, underground and potentially damp space – it’s got all the ingredients for a great night out or a horror film. For the six weeks until 8 March, Heritage Arts Company has taken over these tunnels and filled them with a vast array of theatre, visual arts, live music, and, well, anything.

Festival Co-Director Mat Burt is adamant that “it’s the largest arts festival central London’s ever had”. His Co-Director, Tim Wilson, echoes that, “the whole point is accessibility – I think our average price is cheaper than the Edinburgh fringe price. Anyone can just come into the venue and have a drink. Tuesday, Wednesday, there’s live music – the great joy of the festival is that you can wander in and see one show or wander in and see something you didn’t expect to see at the Vaults.”

When selecting shows for the festival, Burt and Wilson had two things in mind: cooking a steamy broth full of ingredients audiences might not otherwise encounter, and providing a platform where the next generation of exciting young artists can cook for themselves. There was an open application procedure, and the line-up were chosen from around 200 applications. Two-thirds of the selected companies haven’t worked with Burt or Wilson before.

Burt informs me it’s an “exponentially larger” version of the festival, which ran in 2012. Festival curators of the future, take note: “the last VAULT festival came about from a desire to get something into the amazing space that we stumbled across”. Opportunism, an eye for unusual venues and sheer dogged determination are all you need to get it started, although having a hefty contact book can’t hurt when curating a festival on a massive scale with two salacious headliners.

The headline acts for Vault 2014 are Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Lou Stein’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-fuelled masterpiece of gonzo journalism, and The Cement Garden, FallOut Theatre’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s dark and playful coming-of-age tale. These play for the festival’s entire six-week run, while other shows come and go on a weekly basis. I caught up with Nina Smith, an ensemble member of Fear and Loathing. Smith says, “It’s the journey of two men in search of the American dream in Las Vegas”, on a combination of narcotics strong enough to make a mule wince. It’s got the cartoonish aesthetic of a fever dream, and has been adapted and directed by Lou Stein – the founder of the Gate theatre and a friend of the late Hunter S. Thompson.

There’s more to it than just a crazy drugs trip, though. Smith feels that “bigger issues bleed into it”. She sees a contemporary resonance, with a “youth culture that is riled up and driven by what’s going on at the time – a conservative and controlling state.” It’s an “anti-authority play”, one where “we all basically morph into lizards at one point.” It sounds anarchic, fun and devil-may-care. Her comedy partner, Libby (together they make up Twisted Loaf, winner of the 2013 Funny Women Award) is also part of the ensemble. “Libby plays Lucy, who is taken to a hotel room by Gonzo, and ends up having sex all over the place.”


The other headliner is also an adaptation of controversial and acclaimed literary work; The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan. It’s been adapted by FallOut Theatre’s David Aula and Jimmy Osborne, whose play Meat was at Theatre 503. Speaking to Aula about the four orphans’ struggle to keep their family together, he’s keen to emphasise what it provokes – “it asks the audience what it is to be normal, and to remember what it’s like to be a child, that feeling of invulnerability”. The stage adaptation has been six or seven years in gestation, since he performed a version of it as an undergraduate, and no corners are being cut in its presentation. But some ceilings are. “Yeah, we chopped through to create a Mezzanine level”, Aula reveals, as he talks about the need to create a split-level space for the orphans’ house, where the festering corpse of their mother lies encased in cement in the basement.

McEwan saw a staged reading of the play during its development, and gave them his blessing to do anything they liked. There’s a strange parallel: McEwan was the same age Aula is now when he wrote it – they were both artists starting out. It sounds like they have very similar ideas for how the piece should affect people, too: “first and foremost, I want it to be a visceral emotional experience, rather than an intellectual one. I hope the audience disagree with each other.” The shocking content of the play and the intimacy of its setting mean it’s likely to fulfil those aims in devastating theatrical style.

Aside from the headliners, VAULT festival offers a veritable panoply of delights, and there are two shows with a limited run that particularly caught my eye. The first is SPARK by Dissolve theatre, running 4 – 8 February. It is a one woman show with music, magic and a hint of madness. Dissolve describes it as, “On the surface, it’s a play about a woman who elopes with her long-absent partner and the increasingly strange journey they go on. At its heart, it’s about someone reaching the most lonely point possible, but using magic and music to explore that in a beautiful and striking way.” They’ve been developing the piece since first seeing the Vaults in November, and the space has had its own effect on the work: “the gothic tone of the story has definitely been heightened in response to the Vaults, since the space can create such a brilliantly eerie and unsettling feeling.”

Another potential treat is The Collision of Things, a show that deals with getting smashed and spilling secrets, about the intimacies you reveal when you least expect to. It’s brought by Move to Stand, an international touring theatre company, whose award-winning work promises to delight in the cramped confines of the Vault studio. They couldn’t be more excited – “I love the way it’s like a secret world beneath the streets of London – and feel like The Collision of Things is a show that is all about going through those surprising doorways.” [Move to Stand is also bring The Collision of Things  to AYT's INCOMING Festival in May.]

All of this and more is happening a stone’s throw from the South Bank. Burt and Wilson are keen to present it as a festival that’s different to most theatrical activity in London – it’s inclusive, anarchic and has its own ethos. Wilson sees it as a festival with integrity: “It’s a push towards a democracy – I hate that elitist West End stuff, the blandness of it and the idiocy of half of what goes on. If you can touch people with a thing that’s made truthfully by a group of artists, rather than a single artist, I think it’s way more powerful than the sum of its parts.” It’s an environment that supports artists, nurtures collaboration, and has a financial model that makes it accessible for emerging companies. Burt thinks this is key to the art that goes on, “we want to provide the platform where people can do things they might not be able to do elsewhere. With the Vault festival, they’re in a safer place. Obviously there’s still the possibility that it fails. But if it fails, we all fail together.”

So if you’re in Waterloo and catch a strange noise leaking from the pavement under your feet, head on down to the Vault festival , and make sure that they don’t fail.

SPARK is showing at Vault Festival from 4-8 Feb. The Collision of Things is showing at Vault Festival from 4-8 Mar. Twisted Loaf performs Half Baked at the Leicester Square Comedy Club 9 and 16 February at 9pm. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas runs from Tuesday 28 January – Saturday 8 March 2014. The Cement Garden runs from Tuesday 28 January – Saturday 8 March 2014.

Tom Powell

Tom Powell

Tom's dramatic writing has won the National Radio Drama Award, and the Cambridge Footlights' Harry Porter Prize. He is a co-founder of PinchVanishProductions and an Associate Director of Dippermouth. He is currently enrolled in the Writing for Performance MA at Goldsmiths.

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Feature: Q&A with Sam Potter on Mucky Kid

Posted on 04 January 2014 by Lisa Carroll

Sam Potter has had a long and varied career in theatre, most recently seeing her debut play, Mucky Kid, open at Theatre 503. She shares with A Younger Theatre her thoughts on playwriting, career changes and dealing with rejection.


What was the inspiration for Mucky Kid?
I had known about Mary Bell since I was a teenager because the village I grew up in, in Norfolk, housed Wayland prison and there was a rumour at school that Mary Bell lived somewhere nearby. However, apart from knowing that she had killed two small children when she was ten, I didn’t know anything more about the case. It must have been somewhere at the back of my mind though, because when I had my first child, I found myself wanting to learn more about Mary Bell. I suppose I wanted to try to understand why she had murdered two children at such a young age.

How did you conduct your research and then shape that into a play?
I started by reading the two books that Gitta Sereny had written about Mary Bell, and then moved on to newspaper archives and comment pieces. In the second Gitta Sereny book, Cries Unheard, I came across the fact that she had escaped from prison at the age of 21 and gone on the run for three days and I thought that story would make a good play. The play I initially wrote was a straight chronological dramatisation of that real event but I felt constrained by that shape – I felt I couldn’t talk about the subject as a whole in any depth because at that point in her life she had no understanding of why she had done what she had done. I then started to think about writing a broader play and Paul Robinson at Theatre 503 encouraged me to take the story out of sequence. […] The eventual shape of Mucky Kid came out of me trying to express what I’d experienced in my research – which was a sense that people who are damaged don’t hold a linear narrative of events. There is an element of confusion in their own minds about how things had happened. When I found the shape I have now I knew it was the right shape because it was a different shape to any other play I’d read.

Tell us a bit about your career to date and how you came into writing?
I directed for a long time – the best part of 10 years. I worked at the NT, RSC and Glyndebourne Opera. I loved assisting but when I went freelance and started directing my own work I basically realised I was in the wrong job. All my creative ideas were about what I wanted to write, so although it seemed like a crazy decision at the time, because I had built up a good level of experience as a director, I just bit the bullet and decided to follow my heart. I started Mucky Kid, which is my first play, in 2010 and for the last three years have been essentially teaching myself to write. Alongside all my work I have always done literary work of one sort or another, when I was directing I used to script-read for the NT and Soho, and then that developed into becoming the Literary Manager at Out of Joint and now the Creative Associate at Headlong. I think it’s good for writers to be a part of the theatre world and I love working on other people’s plays as well as my own, so its suits me to do both.

Has your work as a director and literary manager shaped how you write plays? What was it like changing roles?
I think the two things have shaped me in different ways – having worked as a director means I have a very clear and practical imagination about what is achievable on stage. I also know what actors are capable of. I love seeing them stretch themselves so I try to write them parts where they can do that. Having worked as a literary manager means I have a lot of knowledge to fall back on, obviously, but I also find it really creatively stimulating to see what other people are writing. There’s nothing better than reading something brilliant. Good plays have so much energy in them because they are blueprints for a performance – they’re just bursting with it. Changing roles was horrendous – not so much the handing over, more that I hadn’t appreciated that writing feels so much more personal than directing. I’m still not used to that yet.

What was it like working for Out of Joint?
I learnt more about theatre from Max [Stafford-Clark] in two years, than I had during my previous 10 years working all over the place, so I’m enormously glad I worked there. The best thing about working for a smaller company is that you get to see how everything works. I was sat next to the person doing marketing and press, I could hear the producer setting up dates with theatres, I was part of the commissioning process and saw first-hand how those plays were chosen and developed. Before working at Out of Joint I had worked mainly in big institutions where you never see any of that stuff –at the NT, for example – the marketing and press all happens several floors up from where the work is made. It’s like a separate company. Working for a smaller company is actually a lot more useful for when you go on to make your own work.

What advice would you give to young theatre makers who are thinking of writing a play and trying to get their work produced?
I genuinely think the most important thing is to focus on your work. Really work hard at writing the best play you can write. It’s very easy, especially when you are young, to get distracted by the other stuff, the business side of things, but the work is the thing you have control over and it’s ultimately the most important thing. Also – almost every play that makes it to the stage will have been rejected somewhere along the way, Chimerica for example – so don’t be disheartened if that happens, just send it to the next person. I would also say that to make sure your work is at its best you need to hear it out loud. Everything gets thrown into sharp relief when you hear plays. So make sure that happens before you send it anywhere.

What’s next for you?
I have just been appointed the Creative Associate at Headlong, who are a company I have admired from afar for a long time, so I’m thrilled to be working with them and I’m just researching a new subject ahead of writing a play in the New Year.

Mucky Kid playied at Theatre 503 last year. For more information see the Theatre503 website.

Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll graduated from University College Dublin in 2012 with a B.A International in English. She is also a playwright, script reader and director. @lisa_carroll46

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Review: Mucky Kid, Theatre503

Posted on 17 November 2013 by Lisa Carroll

Mucky Kid Theatre503


[Contains spoilers]

It’s always exciting seeing a brand new play, particularly when it’s a playwright’s first. The anticipation of whether it’ll be entertaining, have a unique voice, be pertinent, exciting and bold, is always huge – the disappointment then all the greater if the work doesn’t deliver.

The latter scenario is absolutely not the case where Mucky Kid is concerned: put simply, it is absolutely riveting. Given the heavy subject matter – the play explores the 36 hours of freedom Maggie Radcliffe enjoyed after breaking out of prison, where she has spent more than half of her life – you could be forgiven for thinking you were in for a bleak night at the theatre. Instead, Sam Potter’s debut play is fresh, full of life and highly intriguing; Mucky Kid will have you leaning forward in your seat from start to finish.

The play’s structure is immaculate: at its opening we meet Mae (Sonya Cassidy) and Naomi (Pamela Dwyer), thrilled by their new-found freedom and determined to make the most of it. Upon meeting Jason (Adam Loxley) and Derek (Rob Witcomb), they indulge in a night of hedonistic fun, which Mae (Maggie’s pseudonym) dubs “the best night of her life”. However, back in prison, being grilled by the unimpressed staff, we quickly learn that Mae is a stickler for lying. “Use your words,” she is constantly instructed, though the more she articulates her experience, the less we wish we knew. And indeed, as the play goes on to revisit the events of Mae’s escape, we learn more and more that not only is she still a danger to the outside world, but that it is as much of a danger to her.

With the story altering each time we visit it, becoming more dubious, more disturbing and desperate, it becomes clear that Mae might be able to escape the prison walls, but never what she did. This repetitious structure works brilliantly to encourage the audience to keep questioning the truth in what they are seeing and what they think they know, while also imitating the nature of memory itself: how we all spin our own narratives and remember events selectively in order to avoid admitting to more uncomfortable truths about ourselves.

The writer handles the subject matter and story deftly, with a deep sensitivity, allowing Mae to be a simultaneously sympathetic and unnerving character, brought to life with verve by Cassidy. Indeed, the whole cast of Mucky Kid is remarkably strong, with a gripping moment being the unsettling scene where Mae befriends 10-year-old Paige (played by the thoroughly convincing Serena Manteghi). It’s both incredibly sad to see how naive and young Mae is when paired with Paige, while nonetheless making for tense watching given our knowledge of Mae’s offence – killing another girl when she was only 10 herself.

Potter’s writing highlights the complexity of criminal minds, of neglect and abuse, with this multi-faceted play suggesting there is no simple answer and no situation which is simply black or white. We come to learn that Mae is incredibly vulnerable, in many ways a victim herself, making the piece all the more tragic. Indeed, Mucky Kid comes to a devastating head when Mae is pushed by her counsellor to explain what really happened when she was alone with Paige. As she searches for the truth in the tangled story of her escape, she instead stumbles across buried memories about her original crime and is overcome when she realises that this memory is definitely real.

I could continue to wax lyrical about the play – the ingenious set design by Nik Corrall reminiscent of body bags and crime scenes, the careful and detailed direction by James Farrell, and more. But in light of Maggie being constantly told, “use your words”, I won’t mince mine. This is a brilliant play. Go and see it.

Mucky Kid is playing at Theatre 503 until 7 December. For more information and tickets, see the Theatre503 website.

Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll graduated from University College Dublin in 2012 with a B.A International in English. She is also a playwright, script reader and director. @lisa_carroll46

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Feature: Playwright Tom Morton-Smith – it pays to be practical

Posted on 08 November 2013 by Conori Bell-Bhuiyan

Tom Morton-SmithSat at a table in an empty office floor space, Tom Morton-Smith mulls over his latest play script. The actors are taking a lunch break and the floor is divided up with squares of black tape, a few odd items of furniture and, in one corner, and old-fashioned gramophone. The play is called In Doggerland, and to hear Morton-Smith tell it, it’s his best one yet. It’s a story of family and tragedy, and four people brought together by coastal erosion and an organ transplant. “It’s essentially about grief, family and identity… there’s been an accident and the daughter of one of the characters has died. And so her heart got transplanted into Marnie – who had a problem with her heart for her whole life and has now come to find the family of the donor.”

According to Morton-Smith, the play he’s written wasn’t exactly the one he was planning on. Inspired by the psychological effect that heart transplants have one people, he began writing but couldn’t quite get the script to work. By chance, he saw a documentary on coastal erosions that are causing houses and villages to literally fall into the sea and the idea stuck with him: “The image of a family home crumbling of the edge of a cliff and into the sea and being washed away… I thought that’s a damn good metaphor for something!” But instead of scrapping one play for another, Morton-Smith decided to stick with his first two characters, saying he “really liked their dynamic so I decide to take them out – transplant them out – of that play and put them into a new one.”

Morton-Smith hasn’t always been writing plays. In fact, he came into the world of theatre as an actor after studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art – playwriting was never more than a hobby. That changed in 2007 when his first full-length stage play Salt Meets Wound debuted at Theatre 503 and the actor found himself becoming a writer. “Suddenly with that play it was going though all sorts of literary departments, it got me an agent, I was in development with a theatre… that seemed to be doing good things for me and slowly the whole writing thing replaced the whole acting thing.”

Clearly Morton-Smith has no regrets about his shift from performer to scriptwriter. I ask him how he’s finding playwriting so far, and his enthusiasm is unmistakable. “I love creating a world! And when you start collaborating with designers and actors and seeing what they bring to it, you can have what had previously just been in your head come alive in front of you… I love the days like this where you can just be talking through the script [with the actors] and filling in all the spaces. It’s a fun thing to do – create a universe and tell a story through that.”

Of the worlds he has created, that of In Doggerland seems to be one Morton-Smith is particularly proud of and he describes it as “a relatively small play but one that’s very beautiful”. Then, looking slightly ashamed, he admits that when the play is shown he’s hoping for tears in the audience. At its heart In Doggerland is a family drama – a play about the intricacies and pitfalls of family relationships, and it’s the story of two siblings, something a lot of people will be able to relate to. According to Morton-Smith the play is meant to be “thought-provoking and entertaining and moving and all those good things that you’d want from a piece of theatre. If there are a couple of laughs but at the end the audience is in tears then I will have done my work.” After the play opens in the Lowry Theatre, Salford it will then be touring to New Diorama in London and on to another nine theatres everywhere from Liverpool to Exeter and Halifax.

Morton-Smith claims that his best tactic when writing is to get it all done first thing in the morning. His strategy is to get up and get it all written down while it’s all he’s thinking about – before he’s even showered or had breakfast. As he says, if he gets everything done in the first portion of the day, the rest of the day is left to “sit around and worry about the choice of a single particular word in a particular sentence”. As well as being an early riser, Morton-Smith is also a multi-tasker and he likes to always have several plays on at different stages. Although he used to write focusing on a single piece at a time, apparently that means that “you’ll only have a play on every five years… so that’s not the way to go!”

When asked what his best advice to young playwrights would be, Morton-Smith quickly says that there are no set rules for any one person and that there are “as many trajectories to being a playwright as there are people who want to be playwrights”. That said, it always pays to be practical: “Get a day job you don’t hate, because you don’t know how long you might be doing it.” Finally though, he stresses the importance of deciding what sort of thing you want to write, staying true to that and making sure that “what you’re working on is what you want to be writing.”


Conori Bell-Bhuiyan

Conori Bell-Bhuiyan

Conori Bell-Bhuiyan is a student and arts and culture blogger from Manchester. She wants to end up working as a journalist somewhere warm, and she loves anything artsy, off-beat or slightly wacky.

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