I was somewhere beneath Waterloo station when the drugs began to take hold. The tunnels under the railway terminus, operated until last year under the aegis of the Old Vic, are currently hosting the second annual Vault Festival organised by the Heritage Arts Company. Amid 60 or so music, theatre and comedy events running for a night or a week each, the twin flagship shows for the six-week duration of the festival are stage adaptations of Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden and Hunter S. Thompson’s novel/memoir/gonzo-journalistic screed of his 1971 visit to the desert city to cover a road race and then, with glorious irony, a district attorneys’ convention on drug offences.
Lou Stein first adapted Thompson’s work as founder-director of London’s Gate Theatre in the early 1980s, and has revisited it for his production under the graffiti-covered arches. The venue offers a perfect atmosphere, not quite surreal enough to disconnect you altogether but certainly enough to disquiet you and make you wonder whether you really are watching two men burbling psychotically in a curious fold-away Cadillac in front of you while a group of other folk seem to transform into lizards. Very gonzo, very appropriate to Thompson’s flash-fried approach to his work and writing.
The rear wall is painted with reproductions of some of Ralph Steadman’s nightmare-cartoon representations of the trip, with further Steadmanisms projected on to it along with newspaper cuttings, news clips and the like. John Chancer plays an older Thompson and alternates the account with Ed Hughes onstage (named “Raoul Duke” after the good doctor’s standard pseudonym). They both attain the required on-edge declamatory style of delivery, but the pair of them together are outdone by Rob Crouch as Thompson/Duke’s attorney Dr Gonzo (alias Oscar Acosta), who glowers and bellows over the proceedings in the Carroll-on-acid manner of the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, one of a number of period songs used as soundtrack.
The setting’s sense of temporary otherness gives added force to Thompson’s poignant threnodies for 1960s idealism. And then, like Alice, we return above ground.