One of the most amazing things about the Vault festival is the sheer volume of work that is on, brimming over with variety, bursting at the seems with challenges, with questions – and our appetite increases for more, year on year. Naturally, in these damp caverns of creativity, there is also space for similarities.

I’m going dedicate this review to the two Vaults shows I saw back-to-back on the 9th of February. The central themes are quite different, but the intrinsic connection they share is the exploration of self discovery. Chiefly, a discovery that has fundamentally shaped you, but for which you hadn’t yet found the words. How can you be who you are before you know yourself?

Katie Arnstein’s one-women-show Bicycles and Fish tells the tale of how she became a women, and discovered she was, a feminist. Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal’s play The Poetry we Make, is the story of Robin’s identifying as a trans women, whilst Robin”s former girlfriend Elliot comes to terms with where this leaves their lives together. Was Robin always a women? Where were the signs that she missed? Was Katie born a feminist? Or did it take misogyny to make her that way? It’s nature versus nurture on a candid 21st century scale.

“Find out who you are and do it on purpose”, so said Dolly Parton, who acts as Elliot’s spirit guide (gallantly brought to life by Mia Hall) on her quest to find her own identity post-relationship with Robin. Pal’s writing makes the connection between Dolly’s words (and exuberant style) and this young couple’s experiences in exploring the part performance has to play in our identities. Is Dolly still Dolly without the diamantes? Did Robin feel like a woman before lifting a lipstick?

Did Robin feel like a woman before lifting a lipstick?

It’s tricky territory, but Flugelman Productions have not shied away from calling out Elliot, Robin and his ‘laddy’ friend Paul on their views, at points we literally watch them squirm under the spotlights. Elena Voce as Elliot takes the greatest character journey, and captures Elliot’s slightly neurotic, slightly-nauseating young love, heartbreak, bitterness and sheer emotional upheaval in an effortless fashion. Elijah’s performance as Robin is sensitive and placid by comparison, mercifully steering clear of overly-flamboyant clichés.

The early relationship dialogue between the couple feels spot-on, full of both genuine warmth and big laughs, but there are areas that could do with more development. Paul’s trope laddish behaviour being excused away by his ‘regional’ attitude (not used to London ‘birds’) feels lamely tacked on. I’m hyper-aware that a sold-out show exploring toxic masculinity is playing next-door, and the root of his attitudes could do with a look-in.

Meanwhile, over at Waterloo East Theatre a stone’s throw away… Katie is talking and singing us through her own identity crisis. Katie decided she was a feminist at 16 years old, and 10 years later she is set on doing it “on purpose”, just as Dolly advised. But just how does one feminist go about writing a whole play about feminism? If you’re Katie, you write a song (as a caveat) ensuring we know you don’t speak for ‘all women’ (such a relief!), take a black marker to some placards, pick up a Ukulele and go from there.

Write a song… take a black marker to some placards, pick up a Ukulele and go from there.

It’s no mean-feat to make a show about feminism slide-splittingly funny, and even more so when you’re splicing very personal UTI jokes with hard-to-face-facts. But she does it. From the whoops and cheers of women and men alike – she doesn’t just do it – she nails it. Why, she asks, should we as women have to encounter gross misogyny to find our way to who we are? Of course, the glaring truth is if the world were equal and free from misogyny, we wouldn’t need feminism in the first place – would we?

You get a sense that everyone in the room has stories of their own to tell, both good and bad. It’s the sort of sense that makes me want to give everyone in the room a great big hug. Katie does pass sweets around in the opening number, but I feel making more of this sense of community her confessional piece proffers is the secret to taking it to the next level.

In their own ways, each of these shows is calling out to us to identify: Who are we and what do we stand for? Whilst also inviting us to understand that these are not easy questions to answer, that it’s ok to feel confused and to test out different voices on our way to finding one that rings true. Both shows are brave, candid, unabashed and unafraid in the subjects they have chosen to explore. They both feel angry, and yet tender at the same time. They both look to the future for answers we don’t have yet.

Fortunately, there’s plenty more to come from the Vaults – it’s only just getting started…


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