The VAULT Festival is coming to town! From January 24th to March 18th, over three hundred new shows explode across a festival of festivals in their Waterloo home. With new venues, new bars, new food and plenty of surprises, VAULT 2018 is the biggest, fairest platform in London for artists to present innovative, daring work. Here we have a chat with Oli and his smash-hit, currently-touring Cornermen by company Smoke and Oakum.
Heya, Oli! How’s the tour been going so far?
It’s been great, thanks. I’ve done a tour before in the past but this is the first one I’ve produced and I have to say, it’s a strange experience! Over the last month we’ve gone all over the UK from North to South and it’s been great to jump into these amazing theatres at 1pm, run a tech, do the show, hop in the van and drive to the next place. It feels so rushed and speedy but then, as your driving away, you realise “I’ve been working on this thing for 8 months!”. It really flies past you, after our two shows at VAULT there’s only 1 week left so it’ll all be over soon.
How would you describe the play in three words?
Unusual boxing drama.
Any surprising reactions to the piece so far?
Last week we did a show with our partners, Red Ladder, in Barnsley and this morning they forwarded me a message they’d received from an audience member called Lynda that read “Red Ladder and Smoke & Oakum, I salute you. You made me care about boxing for 75 minutes”. That’s the most common reaction we get, it’s usually people who have no interest in boxing, or actively dislike it, who come to see the play and end up getting really involved.
I think most of the narratives we have about the sport focus on overtly aggressive displays of machismo and chest beating whereas in reality, for most people of the level we depict, it’s just a way to put food on the table, same as any other job. If you take away the Rocky aspect of it you’re just left with some very complicated and fascinating human relationships that anyone can get behind.
What would you say is your favourite memory attached to Cornermen?
Well we’ve been running the show on and off since 2015 so there have been a few! I think the one that sticks with me the most is the opening night at the Old Red Lion. We’d been rehearsing for 3 weeks and, as it was only my second play, I really had no idea how it was going to be received. By the time we got to the first show I was absolutely certain we’d messed it up and that there would be walkouts. But then the first joke came and they laughed, and they laughed again, and then they gasped at the right bits and sat still for the other bits and, what felt like 10 minutes later, we were bowing and they were clapping and cheering and a couple of people stood up, and I thought “we might have something here”. That was pretty amazing.
More recently I managed to set off the van’s alarm while trying to park outside of a packed Travelodge at 2am on a Tuesday night. It felt like it went on for hours, all the lights in the rooms came on and I’m frankly amazed no one slashed our tyres in the morning. That one feels a bit less meaningful than the opening night.
Why have you decided to return to the VAULT Festival?
I owe so much of my development as a writer and producer to the guys at VAULT. We first came in 2016 with ‘Cornermen’ and they not only gave us an amazing slot, but also published the text which was an wonderful thing to have happen. The next year they had us back with a piece of new writing, ‘Kings’, which went on to become our first major London run and now here they are having us back again.
I think, above the amazing spaces, the buzz of the festival and the exposure you can get, is the fact that from top to bottom they encourage you to take risks, and not just in a financial sense, but also artistically. That’s such a rare thing in theatre, and I think you only need to take a brief look at the work that goes on there to see how readily the artists accept that encouragement.
What is Smoke and Oakum’s mission statement and how do you feel Cornermen contributes to this?
Our major commitment has always been to making quality new writing and to tell exciting stories in the most engaging way. ‘Cornermen’ was our first play to be published and the first to tell a truly exciting story, which has set the bar for all the work that’s followed. It has gone on all over the UK, been performed in drama schools and been taken on by other companies who have made it their own story as well. I think that’s a great legacy for a piece of work and one we’re very proud of, so it’s lovely to pick it back up again and take it to one of our favourite places, the VAULT Festival.
Cornermen is running at VAULT Festival on the 7th and 8th of March. Tickets and more information can be found here.