Vault festival 2020: all of the latest reviews

Chris Wiegand, Kate Wyver, Brian Logan, Ella Braidwood and Alex Needham

Dumbledore Is So Gay

Until 1 March
Funny, tragic and full of hope, Dumbledore Is So Gay blends a charming nerdiness with an earnest desire to make the world easier for young gay kids. Jack, a gay Hufflepuff (played by an affable Alex Britt), has grown up with homophobic slurs chucked around the classroom and mumbled disdain at gay celebrities at home. When devastation strikes, he uses Hermione’s time-turner to try to fix the past.

Max Percy and Charlotte Dowding spin around Britt in a playful display of supporting characters. They’re a dynamic trio, and Tom Wright’s smooth direction gives a perky crispness to the storytelling. In an infectious display of optimism, this play is a reminder that the opportunity to change harmful attitudes lies everywhere: in parents, friends and children’s books about wizardry. I couldn’t stop beaming. KW

Life and Death of a Journalist

Until 1 March
Lucy Roslyn is extraordinary as Laura, a journalist reporting on China’s grip over Hong Kong in Jingan Young’s intensely smart play grappling with the ethical complexity of political journalism. Craving Hong Kong and feeling restless back in London, Laura is offered a new job at a paper with Chinese Communist party leanings. It would compromise her morals but have the potential of giving her better access further down the line: how much is her integrity worth? Trapped between work and her relationship, she becomes tangled in a web of exhaustion, exhilaration and loneliness. Max Lindsay’s direction doesn’t waste a second; rapid dialogue spins us deliriously and scene changes blur nights out with the blaring haze of protests. No time to catch your breath. Fighting for the right to free speech, this fierce political play prickles with intelligence and anger. KW

Butterfly

Until 28 February
This colourful play explores the real histories of eight undiscovered LGBTQ+ figures who lived in Britain, from the 1700s until the 21st century. Sexuality and gender identity are navigated through various entertaining accounts. These include an Elizabethan called Mary Hamilton, who stitches a beard from pubic hair before marrying 14 wives, and a sailor-cum-drag queen in the second world war. Tales also span a lesbian Muslim’s experiences, and the LGBTQ+ rights movement during the Aids crisis. It’s revved up by live music, dancing and lip-syncing. There were some tech problems but this is a brilliant show full of heart – it’s history that is far from dull and has been smacked through a queer kaleidoscope of charm, dark humour and vibrancy. EB

Notch

Until 23 February
A woman, “A.A”, moves from Eastern Europe to Dublin, where she becomes homeless. She sleeps in hostels, where she is sexually assaulted, or on the streets, where she faces violence and abuse. Alongside this is the story of A.A.’s inappropriate obsession with a woman, leading to horrific consequences. This exploration of homelessness and xenophobia, contributing to the deterioration of A.A.’s mental health, is where this one-woman play shines the most, and it is disturbing, emotive and flecked with dark humour. However, some of the storytelling is unclear and overly complex. Notch has potential and looks at important, relevant subjects, but it’s not there yet. EB

Sticky Door

Until 16 February
In the final instalment of her It’s a Girl! trilogy, Katie Arnstein blends wit and charisma with sombre messages about mental illness and sexism. Drawing on her life as an aspiring actor, she tells us how the year 2013 ended in heartbreak and how she hatched an ambitious plan for the new year: to sleep with a different man every month. Aided by a ukulele, she presents a well-crafted and fast-paced journey about life above a south London chicken shop, Tinder dates and casual sex. Plus, how Arnstein gets cystitis like Etonians get into parliament: easily and without trying. The show seamlessly flits between the hilarious and hard-hitting. After one encounter results in her being sexually assaulted, she describes her subsequent depression in brutal detail. She’s a dab hand at deadpan one-liners, insightful metaphors and anger-inducing monologues. Arnstein is an incredible performer who seems primed for greatness. EB

Splintered

Until 16 February
It’s party time at this show about what it means to be queer in the Caribbean. Based on interviews with LGBTQ+ women in Trinidad and Tobago, three performers take on a series of hysterically relatable sketches: from coming out to falling in love with a straight best friend. These high-energy moments are woven into a raw analysis of homophobia in the Caribbean, covering British colonisation, religion and dancehall music. Above all, they show how Caribbean carnivals originated as an act of rebellion. This notion of celebrating freedom, they say, bears strong similarities with the contemporary LGBTQ+ rights movement. A moving, joyous and dance-filled performance, inducing the kind of laughter that makes abdominals ache. EB

[The Cobbled Streets of Geneva]

Until 16 February
It’s all heartwarming and wholesome in this queer romantic comedy. It begins outside a mosque in north London, as Adham and Raushan become unlikely friends. Sometime later, Adham fabricates that he has a husband in a bid to avoid his boss’s advances, after she invites him on holiday. With Raushan agreeing to fill in as said spouse, the pair navigate around Switzerland, with their discussions on Islam and sexuality helping evolve their relationship from platonic to romantic. While it starts off clumsy and stagnant, once it gets going this show is funny and uplifting. A sweet, middle-aged love story. There’s a shameless joke about the aubergine emoji, too. EB

The Nearly News Show

12 and 14 February
Robots attacking a video games store; shoulder-barging toddlers on the rampage … it’s not news but it’s Nearly News, courtesy of impro comics the Free Association, whose new format promises “hilarious analysis of the real stories behind today’s headlines” – all off-the-cuff. The audience rip headlines from the newspapers: the cast turn them into comic scenes. It’s a slightly odd confection, in that those scenes aren’t improvised in the form of news coverage, as we’ve been led by the spoof newsroom set-up to expect. Nor do they always deliver what the headlines ask of them. But I seldom stopped smiling at the precipitous antics of the seven-strong cast who – as when Jonathan Broke’s “despondent policeman” alights on the phrase “it’s been a high-crime January” – know how to find the funny and what to do with it. BL

Gorgon

Until 9 February
The West End chiller The Woman in Black has proven that you can terrify an audience with nothing more than a torch, some creaky sound effects and a bit of shadow play. In her own horror-comedy, Elf Lyons adds mannequins, a watermelon and an oversized kitchen knife to the ingredients. Rocking a magenta fright wig, her aesthetic is Georges Franju meets Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Gorgon is a three-hander that opens with a rendezvous between a spooked cop (David Houston) and a questionable therapist (Natalie Williams). Its twisted tale of sizzling flesh, abusive relationships and mysterious disappearances is punctured by moments of deliberately bathetic humour and the odd satirical swipe at the trend for true-crime podcasts. It’s a bumpy night, with Lyons also suggesting that there’s nothing more horrifying than an officious flatmate. Warning: you may never cook with leeks again. CW

In My Lungs the Ocean Swells

Until 9 February
This lyrical duet makes you long for the sea. Simon and Julie (Jack Brownridge-Kelly and Jenny Walser) grow up and fall in love on the English coast. She is made of waves, he of fish bones, and they take us through their seasalt-coated lives. Tash Hyman’s direction flows gently around Natasha Kaeda’s poetic script, looping over a giant sheet of oceanic tarpaulin and on top of chunky picnic baskets. What makes this more than just a love story is the background of the fishing industry, and a community suffering from diminishing hauls. As she moves to London and he struggles to make a living, they’re torn between the city and the sea. Moments are illuminated by tinkling, pulsing music, and memories are underscored by the rumble of the ocean. Though In My Lungs is soft when one sometimes longs for a bit more toughness, it’s a lovely piece; you just want to wade in it. KW

The Indecent Musings of Miss Doncaster 2007

Until 9 February
The tunes are banging and the shots keep coming in this comic monologue written and performed by Annabel York. In red gown and lippy, Donna looks back on her triumphant year as a South Yorkshire beauty queen and wonders how she ended up nursing daily hangovers and working for an insurance company. York gives a sparky performance, throwing in a weekend’s worth of dance moves, and director Rebecca Loudon ensures the music routines spring naturally from the drama. One minute Donna is slumped at her desk, the next she is throwing shapes around the office to the sound of a ringing phone and clacking keyboard. Beneath the gown is a spangly pair of boxing shorts, and both the writing and performance are punchy: the thick bassline in a nightclub hugs Donna “like an old friend” and York captures that 2am moment when the music ends and the lights come up. While Donna is a great creation, Doncaster itself – York’s own home town – could be more evocatively drawn, and some of the supporting characters are sketched too thinly (though her impression of a tampon-stealing cat is priceless). If the show eventually runs out of steam and gets a bit messy, well, so do some Saturday nights. CW

Laura Lexx

6 February
It’s one thing entertaining a crowd on Live at the Apollo – which Laura Lexx did back in 2018. But – to use the football terminology – can she do it on a wet Wednesday in Stoke? The conditions at this gig would floor a lesser act: a cold room up a flyblown tunnel a hundred yards off the Vault’s beaten track, and a tiny audience – two of whom presently announce they’re at the wrong show and walk out. But Lexx – now embarking on a UK tour – rises above it, with a strong hour on her mental health, infertility and a bulletproof closing set-piece on gender segregation in school sports. There are plenty fine jokes (I liked the “Buckaroo of makeup” on the face of the woman at the cosmetics counter) and a redoubtable spirit on show as Lexx bests the very inauspicious circumstances. BL

Santi & Naz

Until 2 February
This is a neat little bud of a play. Written by Guleraana Mir and Afshan D’souza-Lodhi, one tender relationship is used to demonstrate the devastating impact of partition. Set between 1945 and 1949, it tracks how lines are drawn between Santi and Naz – by time, by boys and eventually by politicians, as India prepares to be split in two.

The story is bittersweet. Their love for each other is radiant; first just as friends, then later as something more, something forbidden. They’re a charming duo, with Ashna Rabheru’s wide-eyed awe met by Rose-Marie Christian’s delighted chuckle. As kids, the pair play games where they imitate the men in charge, joking about their futures, with the circling ideas of politics seeming just as alien as the thought of settling down with husbands. Their worlds seem full of little but each other, and open to endless possibility. As they get older, reality hits and their dreams are knocked aside, as the the play gradually spirals into catastrophe. A tender yet sharply political new work. KW

The Murder of Kuchuk Hanem

Until 2 February
This textbook study of identity doesn’t quite manage to get out of the starting blocks. Exploring the idea of “the oriental woman”, the play details the unwanted questions, stereotypes and ignorant expectations others put-upon cast member Layla. The rest of the cast dress up as leering older men and hapless boyfriends, while chunky quotes are borrowed from Edward Said’s book Orientalism. It’s a shame that some smart use of projection is largely obscured by the peeling brick wall, as it seems to offer some of the creative boost the play is craving. The stories of Middle Eastern women, meanwhile, deserve more space on stage. The Murder of Kuchuk Hanem is a valiant effort to amplify a voice often shut down, but this work-in-progress needs to elicit more than sympathetic chuckles and nods from its audience. KW

Over My Dad’s Body

Until 1 February
Simon David’s autobiographical solo show opens with quite the musical showstopper. In flared sequin suit, fishnet tank top and beret, he belts out I’m Gay (“That’s literally all I have to say!”), a rhyme-studded dazzler about how you won’t find his sperm swimmin’ anywhere near wimmin. Then comes a neat routine, delivered with mock horror, about realising a man’s decision to “renege on our date” was a brush-off rather than “a gay thing involving Renée Zellweger”. Next, he’s quizzing an audience member about masturbation.

All of which is a hoot. This, David says, is the show he wanted to make. But when his dad was given a terminal cancer diagnosis, camp cabaret seemed inconsequential. David has fun imagining alternative serious or sentimental shows he could have made as a tribute to his father, and there’s some knockabout meta satire before the stakes are raised when it turns out that Dad is planning his own one-man show, leaving David fuming. A fuzzy video recording of that elegiac performance is interwoven into David’s show. This is an affecting hour, fully aware of the “dead dad” fringe show cliche, balancing poignancy with soul-searching humour. CW

Push

Until 2 February
“To sprog or not to sprog?” That is the question, says Tamsin Hurtado Clarke, in a one-woman show about how pregnancy signals an end of one lifestyle, as well as a new beginning. In a performance as dynamic as its title suggests, she hops through trimesters as imagined by an expectant mother, with a nervy energy that captures the headlong rush of new parenthood. There is low-key but appealing audience interaction and an engaging, expressive performance. The show is punctuated with extended dance routines that are curiously emotionless – a mix of nightclubbing and exercise class rather than choreography that enhances the story. A bit of physical theatre capturing the drudgery of caring for a baby, eerily scored with a dripping water tap, works better. More could be made from a section about the baby-kit industry that manufactures a pram as if it’s a 4x4. But this is a show that captures the blizzard of feelings parents have for their as-yet-unborn children. Some are remarkably prescient: it wasn’t until after my own were born that I considered the value of a mute button for toddlers. CW

First Time

Until 2 February
Nathaniel Hall is a Mancunian writer and performer in his early 30s with an easy wit and charm. The story he’s telling, however, couldn’t be heavier: aged 17, he was infected with HIV by an older boyfriend the first time he had sex. Hall tells the story of how he struggled out from under the stigma still imposed on people with HIV, and gives a gentle – and funny – sex education lesson on the way. Told without self-pity, his story packs a real emotional punch that resonates even after you’ve left the theatre. AN

The Wild Unfeeling World

Until 1 February
This buoyant solo show reimagines Moby-Dick as a young woman’s nocturnal journey from Hounslow to the South Bank. Told in part with animal figurines, it isn’t as twee as it sounds – even if Ahab has become a three-legged ginger cat. The story’s actual quest is not for the great white whale, but for joy and calm in a chaotic world. The Wild Unfeeling World comes with a full-hearted performance by our host – call her not Ishmael but Casey Jay Andrews. It will sweep you away. CW

Vault shows we’ve already reviewed

Sofie Hagen: The Bumswing (28-30 Jan) – “a tricksy trip into a slippery comic mind

James McNicholas: The Boxer (30-31 Jan) – “a knockout comedy

George Fouracres: Gentlemon (1-2 Feb) – “sketches of childhood by a poetic pen-portraitist

Since U Been Gone (4-9 Feb) – “a life-affirming study of grief, gender and friendship

Anna and Helen: Stuck in a Rat (5-7 Feb) – “self-care klutzes conjure comedic bliss

Alex Edelman: Just for Us (11-16 Feb) – “a Jewish comic walks into a Nazi meeting …

Ask Me Anything (11-16 Feb) – “an astute untangling of adolescent angst

Sexy Lamp (16 Feb) – “actor shines stark light on the misogyny of her industry

Max & Ivan: Commitment (25-27 Feb) – “a doozy of a comedy show

Beach Body Ready (17-22 Mar) – “laughing and loving beyond body shame