Lights! Planets! People! Vault Festival: How often do you see a 60-year-old bipolar lesbian scientist on stage?

Lights! Planets! People! starring Karen Hill at the Vault Festival (Photo: Dave Guttridge)

Before we get into the actual content, this one-woman show is diversity personified – Maggie Hill is a 60-year-old lesbian with bipolar working in STEM. When writing the piece, TV and radio scriptwriter Molly Naylor said: ‘I wanted to create a character and setting in which complex ideas could be shared and discussed through an accessible story. Space, mental health and relationships are topics that seem to fascinate us endlessly. Creating the character of Maggie has allowed me to explore them with new depth, insight and scope.’

This is Vault Festival’s raison d’etre; itshould be celebrated for giving a platform to diverse and thought-provoking stories that would never appear in the West End but are still worthy of an audience.

Karen Hill plays Maggie, a space scientist tasked with giving a series of talks to inspire young women to get into STEM – and is worried about having a panic attack while giving a presentation. She visits a therapist for the first time ever in search of some coping strategies – but can’t seem to get the therapist to stop poking around in other areas of her life – notably her break-up with her girlfriend.

It’s a gently funny story that brings a focus on to issues that are rarely discussed or seen on stage and that’s refreshing in itself. As a show it feels slightly static – which admittedly is always a problem with a one-person shoe – Maggie goes from sitting stage right in her therapist’s chair to standing upstage centre to give her presentation, and back again. There is also a prolonged lull when she gives the talk to young girls, which feels exactly like sitting in a lecture hall at a TED Talk, rather than a piece of theatre.

However these are minor quibbles: the arc and expanse of the show are vast and impressive: relationships, mental health, women in science, oder women on stage – it’s all touched upon smartly and cleverly. It wasn’t the most dynamic of shows I’ve seen at the Vault this year, but it certainly didn’t fail to launch a few new ideas in the audience’s minds either.

Until 17 March at Vault Festival

Counting Sheep by Belarus Free Theatre – review

Belarus Free Theatre have long established themselves as a company making engaging, innovative and educational work which never sacrifices its entertainment value while offering insights into political struggles and human rights movements.

Founded in 2005 by Nikolai Khalezin, a playwright and journalist, and Natalia Koliada, a theatre producer, the members of the company operate in exile, as art in Belarus is state-controlled and their chosen themes speak out against the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Their most recent work, Counting Sheep focuses on Belarus’s neighbour Ukraine and the Kiev uprising of 2014, in which official figures claimed 113 deaths and 1811 injuries and which set of a chain of events leading to the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and the removal of the president, who fled to Russia.

While the details of what happened and why are impressionistically shown by grainy wordless camera footage, projected on the walls, the plot follows the real-life love story of musicians Mark Marczyks and his wife Marichka who perform on stage and who made the work written in collaboration with Khalezin and Koliada.

The audience are served with snacks to start – adding an initial lull before the action begins. Everyone wants to add food to a show now, but very few do it well enough to justify having it. In this case, it just added an unnecessary layer of complexity and a slow start to a well-formed show. While we nibble, we learn of Mark, a Canadian who visits Ukraine and gets pulled into the protests. I would have liked more character building here, if only to add more power to the story later as we follow him through the horror of the fallout from clashes with police.

However, we are quickly whipped up into a folk dance, and seamlessly, the space transforms from dining room to dance hall to Mariinsky Park, with tires and crates and sandbags passed from hand to hand between performers and audience and built into towers and pyres where the actors grandstand and we – the protestors – cheer and march along to their beat – quite literally – a huge drum beats the rhythm to the rioting and a violinist highlights moments of tension and pathos. as the lines between performers and audience blur, we sing, dance and yell protest slogans in Ukranian, and while it’s sometimes unclear sometimes exactly what we’re saying or even exactly what we’re protesting about – the energy and exuberance of the actors propels us through.

While factual details of the Kiev uprising are sketched rather than hammered home, the feeling of being part of a political uprising is captured with clever minimal sets and lighting. At one point we are handed blankets and sat on sandbags and told – you can sleep now, and a hush descends as smoke fills the air and the walls show images of the protestors in Ukraine laying down on top of each other on the tough ground of Instytutska Street.

Once the dust settles and the bodies have been mourned, Mark and Marichka’s tale is a touching reminder that even in the darkest, most frightening of times the human spirit is still capable of reaching out and finding love.

Until 17 March, from 7pm. Tickets: £28.50 – plus £1.50 Booking Fee, Launcelot Street, The Vaults, Waterloo, London.