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

The New Romantic – Vault Festival: The dawn of the thruple

After Louis Theroux gave us a rather perplexed look at polyamory in his Altered States series last year, it was surely only a matter of time before the theme came up in a fresher form on the stage.

But rather than a lovelorn, dysfunctional, geeky trio, where one member isn’t really into it, The New Romantic presents a rather beautiful version of what a thruple could look like in the modern world.

Opening with Bruno, a boy with tape on his face, naked and playing a double bass. It’s a clever conceit that allows the sex parts to take place in a sort of surreal mime around Bruno’s bowed string instrument and the tape highlights his absence from the love story in the opening scenes, which takes place between two young women – Antonia and Erin, one is a goth lesbian, one is a bi-curious arty type, they start a flirtation, and Antonia invites Erin for a threesome.

The work still very much feels like a work in progress, which the cast happily admit it is; some moments of tension are wrung out for a few seconds too long and other clashes disappear in an unarticulated a mess of high-pitched wails. There’s an extra motif about the need for myths in modern culture that felt a bit well-trodden but the central concept – that maybe this is the era when the thruple will thrive – is a brilliant one and the performances and tenderness they showed for each other were really charming.

It’s the most convincing argument for introducing a third party into your love story that I’ve ever seen, it’s a shame that the fiction doesn’t match up to the reality. Those scenes of a half-naked Louis Theroux being fed strawberries still haunt me.

27 FEB — 03 MAR, Cavern, The Vaults, Waterloo

It’s Not A Sprint – Vault: An existential race to the finish line of life

I’m 35. It’s terrifying, obviously. It’s a bit like when you’re 21 and you’ve just graduated from university and you announce: ‘Here I am world! Employers! form an orderly queue to snap me up’ and no-one does and the infinite possibilities and choices flood in and you Just. Can’t. Decide what to do with the whole of the rest of your life.

While life has a bit more of a regular, self-determined shape to it at 35, in some ways that confounding array of infinite possibilities opens up again. Get married? have a civil partnership? co-habit? explore the joy of being alone? Kids, No Kids? Adopt? What kind of person do I want to be in five years? or ten? will those life choices be compatible with my career goals? Will I be a bad parent? What if I can’t have children? What about the environmental impact of those choices?

And then you start doing the maths. Like Rachel in Friends on her 30th birthday:

“If I want to have a kid when I’m 35 that means I don’t have to get married until I’m 34, which gives Prada four years to start making maternity wear.”

Maddy, played with superhuman levels of energy by Grace Chapman is celebrating her 30th birthday by running a marathon – tied to a balloon.

Turning 30 and the balloon of doom

It’s an interesting coincidence that the ominous thirtieth birthday balloon appears elsewhere – in the new reworking of Sondheim’s Company at the moment too, with a confused female Bobby (Rosalie Craig) looking at her smugly coupled friends and wondering what she’s missing.

Maddy, like Bobby, is feeling the pressure. The pressure of the ClearBlue adverts on her YouTube channel, of her best friend not seeing her any more now she has a family, of her boyfriend of five years proposing – and she doesn’t know whether to say yes or no.

Like most of the shows at the Vault Festival, It’s Not A Sprint, directed with tongue firmly in cheek by Ellie Simpson, doesn’t have a mega-budget to play with. Yet with a balloon and some glitter, and oodles of superb physicality and a really genuine warmth from Chapman, it conveys a similar message to Marianne Elliot’s Company – women have been told they can have it all, yet at 30, they’re discovering a glass wall is being thrown up in front of them, and running away from it won’t make it disappear.

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.