The former Old Vic Tunnels under Waterloo are an odd mix of arts space, dead space and abandoned 1970s workplace – the Vault Festival’s programme of 50 events is spilling through them like a layer of fascinating flotsam on dank sewer water.
Hunter S. Thompson’s take on 1971 Las Vegas has washed up as one of the Festival’s centrepieces, next to a bar selling his favourite Wild Turkey bourbon, a taco stand and battered chunks of casino debris. This lively and atmospheric production might not win him new fans, but enjoyably souses those who’ve followed him down here with bourbon, favourite lines and a hint of something stronger.
Raoul Duke is a narcotic-fueled journalist covering the Mint 400 motorcycle race from the bar with his attorney Dr Gonzo. As the desert dust settles on their hallucinogenic nightmares, they shift their course to pursuing the American dream, by turns meditative and murderous as they slash their way through small towns, hotel rooms and police conferences. Ed Hughes looks the part, but the only menace swishing behind those eyes is watered-down mescalin – the brilliant ensemble’s lizardy snaps and hyper-real transitions bring on the jerky disorientation that he doesn’t quite find.
The impressively spartan seating crams Thompson-pilgrims onto tiers of wooden plank benches, ideal bottom widths helpfully marked out in Sharpie. This close, they’re as hard to ignore as the actors on stage. I spent the play’s opening fifteen minutes convinced that the two retro Hawaiian-shirted space cadets next to me were plants – the illusion broke only when one started passing his gleamingly non-vintage debit card around to be fondled. The atmosphere, knee-to-chin in a pile of tousled, distracted young heads felt faintly like a sing-a-long-a-Fear-and-Loathing –memorable scenes at a lively pace, American accents mangled with hopeful effort.
After a temporary interval-plunge through tunnel crowds moistened with lethally strong bourbon cocktails, the second half was a more sober experience. In a new seat, the wide-stage panorama of Rosie Moon’s sensible design opened out before me – a static white Cadillac convertible, all Steadman-esque black lines, folded away like an ironing board when it wasn’t wanted.
Hunter S. Thompson’s book-filled nook in one corner was another steadying presence, from whence the narrator John Chancer dispensed nuggets of narrative like down-home homilies to his younger self. Lou Stein’s adaptation and direction manages to be all the things Hunter S. Thompson’s novel isn’t – likable, quiet, polite, even tasteful. Rob Crouch’s Dr Gonzo was alone in feeling like a dangerous, unreliable proposition – his virtuoso phone call to shake off the teen girl he drugged glistened with sweaty power.
This is an oddly prim staging of a shaggy, unbuttoned novel. It doesn’t struggle against its traditional two hour-long halves and an interval format, or unduly fluster the audience by trying to interact with them, and David Chilton’s sound design is terribly, terribly quiet – Sympathy for the Devil played soft and tinny as Four Seasons in old peoples’ homes lifts. The lurid patterns on the cast’s well-chosen vintage nylon are about as close as we get to head-spinning psychedelia, with tastefully done projections as sensitive as your gran driving her newly-cleaned car to the close connection between fast-shifting shapes and roadsick nausea.
Although I wasn’t raising a reverential palm whenever drugs were mentioned – props to my benchmates for that one – there was something in the air here. The production never quite replaced the gentle pleasure of familiar things being rehearsed with the more exhilarating joy of familiar things being re-examined or recontextualised, but its muddled energy reinvigorated a beloved book in odd blasts of real Las Vegas neon.