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Vault Festival, The Vaults 2020

Vault Festival: a survival guide

London’s biggest underground theatre fest is back. And to newcomers, it’s terrifyingly huge. Let us help you get your bearings.

By Rosemary Waugh
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Vault is massive. That’s the first thing to know. The Waterloo-based arts festival stages theatre, comedy, cabaret, dance, drag, spoken word, site-specific stuff, lates… and more, way more. It lasts two months and is housed (mainly) in The Vaults, a warren of tunnels beneath Waterloo station. Just following the instruction ‘meet me in the bar’ can be stressful (there are ten of them). Oh, and phone signal is an issue. But it’s so worth the effort. Here’s how to tackle the behemoth. 

How to… navigate The Vaults

Vault organisers Mat Burt and Andy George describe the festival as ‘a marathon of sprints, or a sprinted marathon’. With more than 500 shows in 14-plus venues under and around Waterloo, sloppy planning could lead to you literally sprinting. Take the worry out with these three steps: consult the ‘Find shows’ page on the website before each performance; ask directions from staff; and always, always check you’re standing in the right queue. Boring tip: leave a decent amount of time between shows if you can, as they often overrun.

How to… pick your shows

Producer Ellie Keel is behind two new works this year: ‘Sap’, a queer fable about lying to your girlfriend (it’s a work in progress); and ‘Small Myth’, about mountain climbing and daughters. Her tip is to check out the many work-in-progress shows on the programme. ‘They’ll often be the most ambitious,’ she explains. ‘Seeing the rawest seed of an idea is really exciting!’

How to… afford it

Individual tickets are rarely more than £11, but that soon stacks up. Stay alert for various money-saving deals (like our offer for up to 33 percent off five shows, which you can find here). There’s 10 percent off all tickets and selected food and drink if you become a Vault Festival member (£35). There’s also £1 off if you book two or more shows at the same time, or for the first two performances of any show with five or more dates.

How to… find the next big thing

Unhelpfully, the truth of Vault is that it’s entirely unpredictable: that’s the fun of it! And that’s why you need to take a punt on that clown show about a weightlifting fish. Who knows? It could be in the West End next July.

How to… survive two months in a damp tunnel

Having once performed three shows in one festival (and returning this year in a comedy-slash-storytelling show with Tom Bell), James Rowland is something of a Vault veteran. How does he conquer the underground maze? ‘There’s nothing to survive,’ he assures me. ‘It’s a wonderful festival. It’s the only place in London where you have the opportunity to engage with new theatre and comedy on this scale. Initially, it might feel like there’s too much to take in, but after a couple of trips it’ll feel like putting on a favourite coat with its pockets full of forgotten fivers.’

Vault Festival is at The Vaults. Jan 28-Mar 22.

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