London Slant: Fear and Loathing under Waterloo Station

Picking my way through clumps of spray-paint cans, I entered The Tunnel—London’s “Authorised Graffiti Area”—and headed for a dark doorway. This dank passageway under Waterloo Station once was part of London’s world-beating railway prowess. Now that the city’s less known for train technology than wacky nightlife in offbeat haunts, it’s back at the sharp end. A labyrinth of spooky chambers beneath the tracks make it the perfect place for immersive performance and live bands.

Fear and loathing in las Vegas

The audience arrives for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, part of the Vault Festival, beneath London’s Waterloo Station.

Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead were blaring out as I passed through gloomy corridors and a mockup casino to take my seat for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, adapted for the theatre from Hunter S. Thompson’s cult 70s’ book. Centre stage was the red Chevy convertible in which journalist Raoul Duke (aka Thompson)  and his attorney, Dr Gonzo, down a cocktail of drugs and drive to Las Vegas on assignment to cover a motor race.

The Vault Festival Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The hitchhiker, as yet unaware of what Duke (left) and Dr Gonzo have ingested.

It’s a wild and rollicking ride with a larger-than-life performance by Rob Crouch (Gonzo) regularly intoning “As your attorney I advise you to…” before suggesting sundry misdemeanours. In the duo’s wake lie a string of terrorised bystanders, from a hapless hitchhiker to the hilariously po-faced delegates at a narcotics conference.

But behind all this crazy men-behaving-exceptionally-badly froth and fun there’s a dark driving force. For this piece of “Gonzo” journalism,  in which the writer’s antics become part of the report, is about the death of the 60s’ American Dream. It skewers the spirit of its age: the loss of free-love innocence and descent into decadence.

Scenes from the Vietnam War flicker onto the walls. The looming face of Richard Nixon mirrors a scene when LSD grips the two protagonists and guests at the Vegas hotel dissolve into tongue-flicking reptiles. All these disparate episodes are brought together by the excellent narrator, John Chancer. As Thompson/Duke’s alter ego he interjects telling passages from the book.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

“When the going gets weird…” Duke and Dr Gonzo hit Las Vegas.

By now I’d concentrated so intently on Thompson’s delicious words—and, OK, laughed a lot, too— it was time to repair to the neighbouring caverns for a drink. Thompson’s favourite Wild Turkey Bourbon had been turned into outrageous cocktails with donuts floating on top and a taco stall in a sand-covered “desert” was doing a roaring trade.

A live band and dancing was getting underway as I headed home, burning to download F&L for a second read.  To quote the late, great Hunter S. Thompson himself: “Buy the ticket [they’re £25], take the ride”.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, adapted by Hunter S. Thompson’s friend, Lou Stein, is part of the Vault Festival.  The play continues until 28 February. Vault Lates with live music from 10.30pm onwards.

Images of the play by Nobby Clark.

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