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Review: Right Of Way (VAULT Festival)

Review by Harry Bower


For most people a brisk walk along the coast or a trip to the seaside is a holiday, a moment in time to enjoy and savour, but fundamentally simply a break from work. For Beth Bowden, her connection to the sea and to nature means something more. It is simultaneously an escape from, and an embrace of, her reality. That reality is chronic illness affecting her and those she loves, a society with odds unfairly stacked against women, and the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on those who are disabled or are vulnerable.


As I took my seat for Bowden’s Right of Way at VAULT Festival I took in my surroundings. Bowls and vases filled with water. Bags of salt hanging from the ceiling. Potted plants. Chalk lines drawn erratically on the floor. A projector. And a girl, hunched over one of the vases, unmoved. An unusual and creative setting for what turned out to be one of the theatrical highlights of my month.


The show opens with a recording of the South West coastline and a voiceover by its protagonist which begins to tell a story of hope, love and joy. In many ways what ensues is a love letter to nature; a poetic and self-aware hour-long love letter, which despite being well paced and thoughtful throughout leaves its audience breathless by its beautiful hyperbole and powerful emotive delivery.



The story progresses through four mini acts, each titled at the beginning and each featuring video and voiceover to match the in-person movement and storytelling. The first is framed around ‘sea’, the second around ‘salt’ – and it is the second which is continuous throughout the piece, salt connecting each element of the show in a smart and not overly predictable way. That might sound odd, that a mineral would act as a consistent thread in a piece of theatre. That it makes perfect sense and works on multiple levels is credit to both the writing and performance; an imaginative and nuanced take on traditional storytelling.


There are clever mechanics at work in this piece which are both fresh and inventive, but it is the performance of the actor which has the biggest impact. As the audience accompany Bowden on her re-telling of that long coastal journey she holds us all in the palm of her hand. There is a youthful naivety in her optimistic and lyrical descriptions of her relationship with water, contrasting with an angry and frustrated reflection of life in her shoes, and the reality of both life and the pandemic for disabled people. In one particularly striking moment she describes her mum’s signing of a do not resuscitate order during lockdown. There are anecdotes as powerful as this which pepper the piece and inspire a thoughtful silence in the room.


As well as being deeply personal the narrative is also confronting and uncomfortable at times for its audience and it is only possible to reconcile these feelings because the actor is accompanying us. She achieves this with direct eye contact, positioning herself to sit as part of the audience on the front row, and by breaking the fourth wall. By design this semi-autobiographical play leaves Bowden exposed. She gives a performance with sensitivity and honesty at its heart and when it is time to make the most direct and impassioned criticisms of our society and our government, the metaphor and hyperbole are stripped away. That criticism is raw and is delivered in a hugely articulate and intelligent manner. Some might feel they are obliged to soften one’s emotions and opinions about our government when faced with an audience. No such softening has taken place here and the piece is all the more powerful for it.


The genius of the writing in this show is that while illustrating a specific and private expedition, it is consistently relatable. It doesn’t matter where you are from, it is likely you have a meaningful and personal connection with nature. Regardless of their own circumstance, it is almost certain everyone in the audience knows someone with chronic illness, a young carer, or someone who had to isolate during the pandemic. Even in the unlikely circumstance that you do not fit into either of those camps, the show alludes to personal mental health and wellbeing, both of which impact us all.



The direction in Right of Way is as strong as its production value. Creative Producer Susannah Bramwell and Associate Artist Nina Fidderman have worked alongside Production Manager Lizzie Debonnaire in a team which are going places. Beth Bowden as Lead Artist is already a VAULT Five artist benefiting from a mentorship programme and a spot in the VAULT programme; and you would say that this selection is so obviously deserved. For the four creatives to have produced something this brilliant so early in their careers is nothing short of remarkable.


Right of Way tackles so many issues head-on that when writing this review I didn’t really know where to start. It’s not just about the sea, or the South West coastal path. In fact, it’s barely about the location of the coastal path at all. It’s not just about chronic illness or the struggles in daily life for those who suffered and are continuing to suffer because society doesn’t view them as important enough to save. It’s actually all of these things mashed together, but mostly, it is about finding joy in nature. It is about finding joy when everything around you seems unfair, and the odds seems stacked against you.


A special mention must also go to the effort made by the creative team to make this production accessible to all. As well as content warnings at the entrance to the venue, the team are hosting two relaxed shows and a masks-encouraged show, and most of the voiceover is captioned too. There is an impressively detailed access document available via the LinkTree for the event which has information on quiet spaces, reserved seating, transcripts, companion tickets and more. For a show so heavily influenced by disabilities and inequality this may not be surprising but unfortunately it flies in the face of a culture in UK theatre which is nowhere near as accessible as it should be, and so deserves highlighting.

Right of Way is a reflective, touching and inventive play which is sure to leave audiences with something to think about long after they leave the theatre. The hour wizzes by in a blur of poetic dialogue and inspired multi-media, at times delivering an aggressively but appropriately direct messages to its audience. With a stunning solo performance and strong production value, it deserves all the plaudits it is getting and more.


If you have the opportunity to see this show either at VAULT or when it inevitably and deservedly resurfaces, I implore you to do so.


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


Right of Way has now concluded its run at VAULT Festival. For future information about the show and where it may play next, visit https://twitter.com/RIGHTOFWAYPLAY.

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