Colder Water Than Here at Vaults Festival 2017

Since 2011, the traditionally torpid theatrical weeks at the start of the year have been shaken up by the Vault festival. In the arches underneath London’s Waterloo station. Approached through the multicoloured jostle of the graffiti tunnel. Offering more than 150 productions, nearly all lasting an hour. Plays, circus, comedy. Hungary Hot Potato at the pop-up Balkano Kitchen. Spangled spaces and the smell of damp.

Vault takes you back to the roots of festival, to the idea of visiting not for one show but for the nonstop parade of possibilities. You may go to be immersed in The Great Gatsby, staged as a jazz-age party by the Guild of Misrule, but bump into Superbolt Theatre’s Mars Actually. Or a stimulating swath of work staged by Crew for Calais, the charity set up by people in the theatre industry to help refugees. Borderland and Calais (last performance today) draw on the Twitter streams that documented the demolition of the camps as it happened. The small-scale musical show Still Waiting urged action but also offered a riposte to those who look sceptically on such initiatives. A self-parodic song, Humblebrag, riffs on boasts about visiting and failing to visit the Calais camp.

These underground nooks and alleys lend themselves to tales of escape. Matt Jones’s multilingual A Colder Water Than Here imagines the experience of people on the move. Five characters, their hands stained from fruit-picking, remember the assaults of people-smugglers and look back on escaping over water, the punch of the cold driving the air from their lungs. On the brick walls around them are illuminated columns of words in English, German, Arabic, Chinese. They ripple like waves.

Vault festival continues at the Vaults, Waterloo, London SE1 until 5 March


Susannah Clapp