Features Published 28 February 2019

Vaults Odyssey: Goths Underground

"Bats! Gay bats! Bats in a freaking tunnel!" - Francesca Peschier heads underground in search of the campest, eeriest, and most shiver-inducing shows at Vault Festival.
Francesca Peschier

Production artwork for ‘Vespertilio’ at Vault Festival.

The origins of the term gothic as an aesthetic relates to art and architecture once considered barbaric, something early, heathen and potentially fiendish. Now, the Vaults might descend into a beautiful den of inequity come the Saturday lates but all-in-all it’s a very civilized place – you can even get a porcini mac and cheese for gods’ sake. Yet, there is something wonderfully gothic, in the sense of  subculture-meets-literature-genre, about the space. Its dark dripping tunnels and slightly dank smell, a seeming surplus of cool-looking folk in head to toe black, even pints in plastic cups crying out for a dash of blackcurrant. The Vaults are intrinsically dramatic before the house lights even go down, as full of suspense as any Wuthering Heights moorland or horror movie tunnel. Something terrifying could be lurking around any corner: a vampire,werewolf, an improvised musical with forced audience participation. Even the names of the performance spaces sound like excellent goth clubs: the Pit, the Cavern, the Cage.

I love gothic things. I like to think that there is an alternative me somewhere out there in string theory who genuinely likes Nine Inch Nails and doesn’t have to turn the Babadook off after the opening credits. The Vaults has its fair share of scary/horror style shows, including the genuinely unnerving Séance from the masters of the binaural sonic scare Glen Neath and David Rosenberg. But my favourite thing about goth-stuff is the inherent high-drama and other-worldliness. I therefore approached this Odyssey seeking out the theatrical equivalent of a summers’ day in Brighton, dressed in full Victorian mourning gear whilst enjoying a 99’. I wanted to see shows that were like a red-lined cape sweeping up those gloomy tunnels -vivid, a little creepy and with lashings of camp. At least that how I started out, at some point it may have morphed just a teeny bit into ‘stuff 90s-teenage-goth-me would have thought was fucking awesome’, for which, to the companies/writers included, I can only apologise.

As with Exeunt’s other Odysseys into the Vaults, this should not be considered a review-round-up in any such traditional sense but an exploration of a theme. The runs for all of the shows featured are over, but if patron gothic saint Ann Rice has taught us anything (apart from all the best vampires are queer) is that, for better or worse, potential resurrection is always just around the corner.

Ladybones had a pink skeleton on the poster, an excellent start, and features Sorcha McCaffrey’s central character stealing a skull from a one-night stand and keeping in on her bedside cabinet. That’s Mary Shelley levels of Goth. However, by my (be it highly subjective and shaky) set perimeters, Ladybones isn’t actually very goth at all. Despite McCaffrey’s plot hinging on archaeologist Nuala (McCaffrey) finding a skeleton (of a potential mediaeval witch no less! SABRINA VIBES), it’s actually a sensitive exploration into living with OCD directed by Lucia Cox. It’s a somewhat inconsistent production whose intended message and emotional impact flitter slightly frustratingly out of reach. There are some beautiful moments full of tenderness and un-sickly softness when the vulnerable Nuala gets involved in her sister’s drama group, or when she bonds with said stolen skull (pretty damn goth, one day I’ll bore you all with my plans to be the first female Yorick). There are perhaps too many threads which don’t allow us to full dig into (archaeology pun fully intended) Nuala’s beautiful brain. For a piece with the condition so at its heart, I came away having learnt nothing at all about OCD.

Goth things can be scary, but nothing is truly as scary as enforced audience participation. In this, Ladybones has great intentions but there’s also not much point in giving out stickers to signify whether you are up for getting involved (an excellent idea, and one I hope to see more widely adopted) if the actual participation is hugely uncomfortable. It might be funny for everyone else to ask your victimvolunteer to deliver that line in a Scottish accent (especially if they, as in the production I saw, happen to have that Fife-intonation down) but its potentially excruciating.

‘ScreamPhone’ at Vault Festival

ScreamPhone is a musical about a 90s toy and sleepovers. This might not sound very goth, but I refer you back to the name. It’s ScreamPhone not ‘Bop-it the musical’ or, like, ‘The Incredible Lightness of Being Mr Frosty’. Plus, getting scared silly at sleepovers at is an enshrined high school tradition; there’s always that one mate whose parents let you watch The Exorcist when you’re in year 7, or the one whose good at crafts and made her own Blue Peter-style Ouija board. The crossover of this scenario, teen girls/potential Scream movie-style killer, with the brilliantly creepy 90s’ wonder that was Dream Phone, (like Guess Who but where you called creepy random men on a giant pink phone to find out which one fancied you – exactly as weird as it sounds. Look it was the 90s, the internet was dial up and lived in one room) is inspired. The 80s soundtrack with re-written songs and total lack of plot is, sadly, less so.

Like some of the best goth bands, ScreamPhone is redeemed by the uproarious, melodramatic performances. They have Black Sabbath levels of stage energy – even convincing a random man from the audience to enact a dramatic death scene, seemingly unprompted. Kerrie Thomason and Natasha Granger are fabulous debauchery personified the cool girl-cheerleader types, with their mousey mate (Alexandra Lewis) absolutely smashing it in her solo. It’s a raucous, endearing Fringe piece – and whilst it doesn’t feel that it has much in it to carry it to bigger things, it’s a delightful treat in being simply what it is.

As a company, the themes of Hermetic Artshave seen them already firmly established on my goth-radar. They love ‘dark arts, horror, cryptozoology, mischief, science fiction, and odd stuff.’ E.g. goth stuff – gimmee, gimee. Their latest offering, April, even has a beginner’s guide to sigils (magical power enthused symbols, like calligraphy crystals) in it with Carrie Marx as our guide, an online cult leader of dreams and positive thinking with a tasty sprinkling of black magic.Back in the day, if us 90s’ goths wanted to get down with a bit of the old chaos magic, we had to traipse to London’s only occult bookstore Treadwell’s and be laughed out of the demonology section. Now the kids just get on YouTube for all their thelemic needs.

April is an exciting curve ball for the dependably ground-breaking Hermetic Arts – not only does it dip its (potentially cloven) toe in the murky waters of truth but it’s funny. Properly, laugh out loud funny. I don’t want to give any spoilers but who knew that Mr Blobby had such potential esoteric power. It feels that there is still another, more polished, braver iteration of April yet to come. This is praise, not a criticism, the show has an afterlife and with-it Hermetic Arts further establish themselves as one of the most original, brimming with potentiality, companies on the scene.

‘Smoke Weed Eat Pussy Everyday’ at Vault Festival

Chloe Florence is frighteningly cool. In her one woman show Smoke Weed Eat Pussy Everyday, she exudes rockstar energy that seems to fill every crevice of the echoing tunnel space. Her slam style, thrown down poetry meets narrative of warehouse raves and youthful escape holds up a mirror to a world and to friends I recognise. It’s a world of South London warehouse raves, dodgy night buses and always a mate who knows a mate whose got some good shit. This might not be my goth experience, not least because too much drum and bass makes me anxious, but its anarchy and rejection of conformity is 100% goth in spirit, or at very least rock and roll meets grime both literal and musically. The story Florence spins of a wilful lost (yet found) throwing of body and soul into the music and drugs, that momentary freedom of another party, another place, is simultaneously liberating and desperate.

In the Vaults, Smoke Weed Eat Pussy Everyday suffers some technical issues, the sounds and images fighting the acoustics and walls unfriendly to the subtleness of projection. It doesn’t really matter -even when you can only hear half the words, there is no missing the power house star quality that is Florence. She’s currently the resident artist at The Roundhouse so I suggest you all start ringing up enquiring when her season is round about now.

I was excited about Barry McStay’s Verspertilio from the moment it winged its way into my conscience – Bats! Gay bats! Bats in a freaking tunnel! In actuality, the show is that gorgeous nugget of rarity: a fully fashioned, ready-to-go play – a delicious one-hour mouthful of drama. It’s like one of those impeccable canapés you get on a spoon at a posh wedding that you gobble up in a single bite. At its centre, a colony of bats and at the centre of that colony, one bat – a very special bat (that’s my favourite Valentines’ greeting), the last of his kind. A quietly passionate love story that flies around other themes, loneliness, isolation and deception.

If Verspertilio doesn’t finally make the major spaces sit up and take notice of director Lucy Jane Atkinson then we need to stage a freaking coup. She injects McStay’s heartfelt and humorous writing with playfulness and bubbles of light relief without compromising on the romance. Benedict Salter gives a sincere performance as the lonely, socially awkward Batman (no, not that one, the conservation one). Suitably for a goth themed review, manic pixie-bat boy Joshua Oakes-Rogers channels the energy of Spike from Buffy (if Spike was doing Hamletmaybe) in his Machiavellian expressiveness. His face shifting constantly from cherubic innocence to something distinctly sinister.

In the cavernous umm, cavern of the Vaults, everything just comes together in this production. As Salter swings his torch at the dank ceiling, the audience gaze up at truly expecting a flapping of wings. It’s mesmerising, kind of dark, unexpected, sardonic and ever so slightly camp – everything the best goth should be.

For more of Exeunt’s Vaults coverage, read Francesca Peschier’s piece on how shows at the festival explore girlhood, an article on Counting Sheep and activist theatre or Hard Relate, which explores queer representation. 

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Francesca Peschier

Dr Francesca Peschier is a dramaturg, lecturer, writer and ex-designer based in the New Works department at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse. When not writing about or watching theatre she concerns herself with back-combing her hair to Dolly Parton heights and trying to create passable aerial hoop routines to goth rock classics.

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