First Look: Is Dublin’s newest tourist attraction any good?
Vaults Live takes visitors on a hilarious and gruesome journey through Irish history
The students from the south Dublin school shriek with delight as their teacher is hauled before a tired and emotional judge and accused of singing excessively loudly and possibly drunkenly in Ballydehob while wearing nothing but a pair of frilly pink bloomers.
So she sings a rousing few bars of The Fields of Athenry and orders the packed courthouse go to the next room where a fretful Bram Stoker and – spoiler alert – Dracula are waiting in a graveyard. One of the first things Stoker tells the group is that he is from Dublin, from the northside, to which one child responds “Ooooh! That’s scarier than Dracula!” Everyone laughs. Except Stoker. He’s too scared by what is going to happen next.
Welcome to the Vaults Live, a brand new, all-season tourist attraction that has just opened in an old schoolhouse in Dublin’s Liberties that, no doubt, played host to its fair share of all-too-real horrors going right back to the middle of the 19th century.
The horrors of today are pleasingly camp and most entertaining despite, or because of, their gruesomeness. Cromwell’s torturer appears early on. He’s got an English accent – innit – and tells the highly entertained children that he “came over with Oliver to put manners on the Irish”.
As he speaks, disembodied and recently severed heads of just two of his victims appear in the corner of his torture chamber. He tells the group - the first official tour to walk through the Vaults Live doors – about the atrocities at “Drock Eed Aah”.
“Drogheda, you moron,” shouts one child, much to the displeasure of his teacher but, unfazed, the torturer continues to outline the terms of surrender that Cromwell’s army offered to the people of the town.
Then one of the disembodied heads sets the record straight and explains that the people of Drok Eeed Daaa were given no more than five minutes to get out before the slaughter started.
The torturer concedes that it was widely regarded as “an act of savagery” and explains that he was “quite proud of that”. He also explains the origin of silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row in a way that is sure to make most men wince.
There is no shortage of gore in Vaults Live to the credit of a tourist attraction, which marries live theatre with audience participation and low-key but high-tech special effects to being six different scenes from Ireland’s history spectacularly to life.
There is also a nun’s apothecary, where ghost stories are told and the homestead of a settled Viking - yes he IS called Ikea.
The show/tour ends with everyone being taken up to Monto to meet Molly Malone and a gormless guard where a love story of sorts unfolds and the song which shares her name gets sung.
It sounds ridiculously cheesey but is quite brilliant; smart and informative , delightfully acted and sure to keep parents and tourists unfamiliar with Irish history entertained, while mesmerising a generation children of young people reared on the modern wonder that is Horrible Histories.
The first draft of this particular history was written by playwright and Irish Times journalist Fergus Linehan and after his death, taken on by his friend and award-winning playwright Peter Sheridan.
His aim was to make “every guest laugh and scream and send them away with an unforgettable insight into why we, the Irish, are the way we are”. And he pulls it off.
The concept was developed by Frontier Entertainment, led by TV and film veterans Paul Blanchfield and Gerald Heffernan. Blanchfield, also a former broadcaster and serial entrepreneur, says the business was based on “rethinking what culturally-curious domestic and overseas visitors are searching for and receive from Dublin’s current paid attractions.”
“We want people to come away from Vaults Live with a smile on their face and maybe a slightly different take on aspects of Irish history. It’s funny, there’s a little bit of horror and there’s a love affair,” says Heffernan.
Director Conor Hanratty describes the project as the start of an immersive theatre movement in Ireland. “One of the ways live performance is competing with Netflix is in this move towards immersive, immediate performances that bring you to the very heart of the action,” he says.
The Monto scene is set the days before police and priests moved in union to bring the curtain down on what had become one of the largest red light districts in Europe, just a stone’s throw from O’Connell St.
Sheridan drew inspiration for his Molly from an 18th century incarnation of the ballad in which Molly sells cockles and mussels by day and turns tricks by night. He also incorporates Take Her Up to Monto, based on Dicey Reilly who refused to go into a Magdelene Laundry. “She found herself a little flat in Fitzgibbon Street and someone was so enamoured by her that they wrote this song about her. It’s a beautiful dirge to a prostitute in her old age,” he says.
The kids loved it anyway.