The evenings may be dark and gloomy, but sparks of creativity are starting to ignite in the arches beneath Waterloo station. Since 2012, these graffiti-covered tunnels have been home to Vault Festival, a London-based fringe event that gives a platform to emerging theatre-makers and comedians. For two months at the start of every year, this space is divided into small theatre venues, where innovative artists can test out material or give preview performances of new work. Here, performers can hone their craft over a shorter, less expensive run before taking their work onwards, often to the Edinburgh Fringe or nationwide tours.
That is, until a worrying halt in proceedings over the last few years. In March 2020, the festival was forced to grind to a halt early as concerns about the coronavirus became real. The following two years, with new variant worries and a still-fragile theatre industry, the festival was cancelled. Vault co-founder Mat Burtcher told me in summer 2020 that it had been “the only sensible choice”, but it also felt like a worrying prophecy for the fringe theatre scene. As the Bunker Theatre in Southwark was closed due to redevelopment and the price of getting to the Edinburgh Fringe soared, artists questioned whether small-scale theatre was viable anymore.
But now, it’s January 2023 and the Vault Festival is back, with 500 shows spread out over two months of fun at the festival base near Waterloo. This is the place to see the stars of tomorrow before they, with a bit of luck, take over the world. Liz Kingsman, currently one of the biggest stars in comedy, is one recent example of the power of Vault Festival. Her five-star laden One Woman Show, now the toast of the West End, began life here.
Below, you can find my biggest picks from this year’s festival – from drag to drama...
Liv Ello: Swarm
If you saw Frankie Thompson’s genius lip sync extravaganza Catts at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, you’ll know that Liv Ello, who directed the show, is one to watch. Ello uses similarly wacky multimedia storytelling for their own show, Swarm, in which they appear dressed as a fly. The title invokes the word once used by David Cameron to describe migrants coming to the UK, in order to explore our parasitical politics and the hate campaign against immigration.
7-10 February, 8pm, The Cage
You Are Going To Die
Back in 2017, Adam Scott-Rowley got completely naked on stage at the Bunker Theatre (RIP) and earned rave reviews. This year, he’s stripping off again for You Are Going to Die, a tense meditation on the impending end of the world. If it sounds a tad nihilistic, don’t worry – Scott Rowley promises it’s “f***ing funny” too.
14-19 March, times vary, The Cage
Gun To Your Head
This electric two-hander, written by emerging playwright Simon Jaggers, follows teenage runaways Dakota (Shakira Riddell Morales) and Bede (Abdul Jalloh) as they hide out in an abandoned quarry and dream of a better life. Jaggers has been mentored by hefty theatre names such as Simon Stephens and David Eldridge, so we’re expecting great things.
14-18 February, times vary, The Cavern
Pecs are a drag king collective, consisting of female and non-binary theatre artists, and this year they’re bringing their late-night cabaret show to the Vaults. Expect impressive performances nodding to queer history, stars from across the London drag scene and expert DJs guaranteed to get everyone dancing. Come along and get your pecs out for the lads...
25 February, 10.30pm, The Flair Ground Lates
Mat Ewins: Tech Experiments
By now, integrating video elements into live comedy shows can feel like an overdone shtick... unless you’re Mat Ewins. The king of video comedy manages to make this format feel fresh, with shows that are full of interactive games and wacky visual gags, as well as tightly scripted and stuffed with jokes. After his five-star run at the Fringe this summer with his show Danger Money, you can expect more, well, experimentation from his new show, Tech Experiments.
1-3 March, 8.15pm, The Spacement at The Glitch
As a politics student turned drama school grad, Zahra Jassi knows a thing or two about tackling big issues on stage. Here, she writes and stars in her debut show Honour-Bound, which explores the complex issue of anti-Blackness in south Asian communities through the lens of an Indian woman with a Black boyfriend living in London.
7-10 March, 6.30pm, The Pit
Few words have drawn me towards a piece of theatre quite like the tagline for Perverts: “There’s nothing less sexy than the cloakroom queue at a sex party.” In Alice McKee’s play, this inspired setting is used to explore subjects around queer identity and internalised lesbophobia, with Mared Jarman starring.
31 January – 5 February, times vary, The Studio
Lorna Rose Treen: Skin Pigeon
Last year, I saw character comedian Lorna Rose Treen perform at the Funny Women Awards final and laughed so much I violently bit my tongue. Treen won the competition and I left with a mouth full of blood, convinced of her future stardom. She’ll be testing out her new characters (like the kind you’ll see in her hilariously stoopid TikTok videos) in her work-in-progress show Skin Pigeon. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this.
2 March, 9.45pm, Network Theatre
When the pandemic hit, a lot of performers found themselves unable to work as they had before, forced to take on new jobs to pay their bills. For Joe Leather, that meant working as a binman while moonlighting in the evenings on the Zoom drag show circuit. Leather tells their story in Wasteman (genius show name), their Offie-nominated one-person show that debuted at the Camden Fringe last summer, and brings some much-needed glitter to the garbage.
14 -16 February, 8pm, The Pit
Waiting for a train at the bus stop
Poet and playwright Mwansa Phiri’s new show follows Chili (Chipo Kureya), a woman struggling with low self-esteem and a waning sense of self, who finds herself being drawn into a controlling relationship. Interweaving spoken word and comedy with Zambian oral tradition, this is an intriguing one.
29 January and 5 February, 5.15pm, The Spacement at The Glitch
The words “burlesque” and “clown” might seem like strange bedfellows, but Rosa Garland (member of the excellent theatre company Poltergeist) surprisingly makes them work. Trash Salad is surreal, sultry and silly, with big laughs and promises of sex, love and lettuce. If getting your five a day was on your new year’s resolution list, then I’m pretty sure this counts.
31 January – 2 February and 28 February – 1 March, times vary, The Flair Ground
In February 2020, 25-year-old Ahmaud “Maud” Arbery was murdered in Georgia, with his family lawyers going on to call the killing a “modern-day lynching”. Now, Black British Theatre Award winner Andrew French makes his directorial debut in a gripping play that uses media stories, testimonies and historical interviews to explore the trial and eventual passing of Georgia’s first-ever hate crime law.
21-25 February, times vary, The Crescent
This summer, Crizards – aka “the UK’s lowest energy double act” – made their Edinburgh Fringe debut with a comedy hour directed by Comedy Award winner Jordan Brookes. Now, they’re bringing their new work-in-progress show to the Vaults, for more silliness and jokes about bodily fluids. Delightful.
14 February and 23 February, times vary, The Spacement at The Glitch
Vault Festival runs from 24 January to 19 March at Leake St, London, SE1 7NN. For more show information visit vaultfestival.com