JESS HOWLEY-WELLS reviews Wretch at the VAULT Festival.

‘London’s answer to Edinburgh’s Fringe’ (according to Time Out magazine) comes hidden away within the labyrinthine Vaults beneath Waterloo: The VAULT Festival. From comedy to drama, film to music, the walls of The Vaults are ringing with theatre, and in return the audiences pack out every corner. The vibe is completely unique, and exactly right for new theatre to succeed: there is a certain electricity about this place.

In the Brick Hall, one of The Vaults’ many theatrical nooks and crannies, Interval Productions’s Wretch debuted. The one-act play tells the deeply moving story of Amy and Irena’s coincidental reunion, one year after their first encounter, in a hostel for the vulnerably housed. When the play opens, we see two women ready for new beginnings: Amy is a gregarious yet fragile twenty-something, recently out of rehab and ready for a stable income and a room of her own. Irena is a Polish ex-teacher, who has lived in the hostel for a while and almost has enough money saved to move out. Their collision is satisfyingly and believably messy: by marrying the script with the music of Eliza and the Bear, we are forced to see the vulnerable as ‘cruel’ and the ‘cruel’ as vulnerable.

The cast is beyond watertight. Tori Allen-Martin as Amy exudes an energy and allure that swings seamlessly between hilarity and desolation, brilliantly painting a portrait of self-destruction. Debra Baker as Irena brings a beautiful quietude to the piece; we get the sense that her every word is deliberate. This contrast between unstable and steady, moveable and sure, makes for brilliant theatre. At the heart of all of this is honesty: though opposite, the characters seem, equally, perfectly human. The cast of three is completed by Timothy O’Hara, who moves between two roles with ease and in each manages to portray a sinister selfishness. He is a warehouse manager and a manipulative ex-junkie ex-boyfriend–another two imperfect/perfect humans to add to this finely-balanced vignette.

Jamie Harper’s effective direction makes use of a simple set, fittingly creating the sense that no space is permanent. Having everything laid out across the stage at all times, the movement from room to room is not demarcated by physical walls but psychological ones. The only moments that Wretch falters slightly are brought about by volume issues–in a vault underneath the railways of Waterloo, background noise is an issue. Though there is an atmospheric appeal, microphones would be a great help on a practical level. This is evident in the musical numbers too, as often the details of the lyrics are lost to the overpowering backing music. This is a shame, but it does not anywhere near undo the powerful success of the piece as a whole.

The awareness that Rebecca Walker’s script is nuanced with the findings of a three-month interview process with vulnerably-housed women creates the impression that there is a great chorus of voices behind each of them. These women have a depth and texture rare for characters so ‘fictional’, and Wretch is a victorious tribute to the real women they represent as a result.


Wretch ran 8 – 12 Feb as part of VAULT Festival. For more information see Jess’s Interview with Wretch‘s producer Tori Allen-Martin.

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