I tend to avoid London's South Bank if given the chance. Sure, there are wonderful things down there - the Skylon bar in the Royal Festival Hall, tasty suppers at Canteen, access to the Northern Line, and of course one of the most impressive views of the city. But it's always heaving with tourists and out-of-towners, often with small children in tow, and I am more than happy to leave them to it. Unless I get an offer I can't refuse to head, gasp, South of the River. And so it was that earlier this week I found myself tramping across the Charing Cross bridge, bound for the general area of Waterloo with the Accidental Ally. We were off to check out the launch of the 2014 Vault Festival - an extraordinary theatrical experience held in the tunnels beneath Waterloo train station.
"Er, dearest, are you sure this is right?", asked the Ally nervously as we scooted down Leake Street, with minutes to go before curtain up. I could see why she was unconvinced - GoogleMaps appeared to be directing us into a car park. "No, I think it must be down here." I said, motioning to a large archway beyond a bank of metal fencing. The look I received seemed not entirely reassured. We set off into the tunnel with slight trepidation. "What's that smell?" questioned the Ally, and as we wandered through the tunnel the answer became clear - spray paint. In contrast to the dark gloom of the January night (and the insalubrious car park) the tunnel interior was illuminated with sparkling graffitied swathes of orange and gold and silver and green and purple and blue. We plunged on in.
Past some artists, hard at work on a new piece, we finally found the opening to the Vaults. Entering the space inside felt like heading into a secret, slightly trippy bunker, with naked lightbulbs dangling overhead. The festival is showcasing two headline plays this year - Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (which we were here to see) and Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden - each of which has a separate stage assembled in its own individual cavern. But alongside the stages, we also found a bar or two, a dancefloor, and even a couple of spots to grab a bit to eat. Despite this being the formal launch event of 'Fear & Loathing', the place was already buzzing with people clutching whiskey cocktails and beers. But it was hard to tell who was adhering to the 'Get weird' dress code, and who had come dressed as they normally would - here be arty types.
We took our seats for act one of the show, marvelling at the cunning staging. Working around the full space of the vaulted space, the set was designed to flow to the edges of visibility, so you sometimes weren't quite sure you were aware of everything that was going on - much like the classic Hunter S. Thompson tale of drug-fuelled road-tripping itself. The play was completely mad. As the original book, and subsequent film were. But it was a perfect portrayal of madness. (Only slightly derailed at times as an American accent escaped an actor.)
The set was wild and cartoonish, with hurtling projections galore; making you wonder whether you had joined Duke and Dr Gonzo in their ingestion of that twisted shopping list of mind-altering substances which determined the course of their tale. The acting was riotous and committed, and the engrossed audience was right there with the cast. None more so than a pair we could only assume were parents of a cast member, looking uncomfortably grown up in pastel cashmere and a sports jacket, in amongst a host of scruffy design college-types and smokers of pretentious electronic pipes. When they leapt to their feet as the play ended, clapping furiously and yelling 'bravo!', our suspicions were confirmed.
Pleading emotional exhaustion, after the excitement of the play (and maybe a little too much vino before it started!) the Accidental Ally and I slipped off home around ten. But the party raged in the tunnels as the Vault kicked off its first LATES event - The Opening Hullabaloo - with live music, and more whiskey, and likely a fair bit more madness. As we headed home, we found ourselves back in the cold air, surrounded once more by the busy chaos of Waterloo and the South Bank. And it suddenly struck me as only fitting that the Vault Festival happens where it does; matching the disorganised madness above ground with some curated chaos of its own below.
The Vault Festival runs until March 8th 2014. Check out its website for more details and to purchase tickets.
The Accidental Ally and I were invited to the Vault Festival by The Corner Shop. Any opinions expressed in the above post however are those of The Accidental Londoner alone. I do not endorse products or organisations that I don't or wouldn't use myself or recommend to a friend.