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.