This year I covered the Latitude festival as one of four critics for Public Reviews. Three amazing days packed with theatre, music, cabaret and more from 11am to the early hours of the morning. Filing copy as we went these reviews may not be always up to the same standard as the more thought through work I file on a weekly basis but it hopefully catches the sheer range and thrilling variety of the work on offer over this its tenth anniversary. This is a long post at 4,500 words and including all 11 reviews filed over the weekend but I have started with a brief roundup which should give you a good idea of what Latitude is all about.
Glastonbury may be the Daddy, Radio 1’s Big Weekend may have the big acts, but nothing beats Latitude for the sheer multi-faceted celebration of culture in all its forms.
Whether you’re a music lover, a reader, comedy aficionado or theatre geek there is something here for everyone. You can spend your festival listening to poets or bask in the sun watching dance on the Waterfront stage. From 11 in the morning to long past the midnight hour there is something to keep you occupied. It’s an inclusive place, from the dancing teenagers always on the lookout for a bunk up in their tents and the families introducing their tots to the joys of a festival, to an older crowd who methodically work their ways through the spreadsheet of what they want to see. Now in its tenth year, Latitude has become a central part of the British festival calendar. With three days of glorious sun, it couldn’t have asked for a better weekend in which to celebrate this milestone.
The theatre section was particularly strong this festival. Paines Plough presented a double bill of Sabrina Mahfouz’s work on the Friday, which saw searing performances blend with her unique theatre voice and suggests that we will see much more from this writer over years to come. Dracula on Saturday night was bat-shit crazy, an operatic steam-punk version of the tale that was messy and thrilling in equal measure whilst the premiere of a new Kneehigh piece is always newsworthy even if we didn’t get to see the end due to its overrunning time.
With some glorious circus courtesy of Lost In Translation Circus and Chris Goode’s Stand opening the Festival there was so many voices on offer and so much good work on these shows will become staples of theatre programming over the next 12-18 months. It was left to Bryony Kimmings and her partner Tim Grayburn’s Fake It Til You Make It to provide the festival highlight for me though with an intensely moving study of clinical depression which left a packed theatre tent in tears.
It was a mixed bag over on the music stages this year. Alt-J found themselves headlining their first ever UK festival but seemed a little low key for a Friday night crowd who perhaps were expecting a little more bang for their buck, James Blake was little better with a dull set, whilst Portishead were ethereal and haunting on Saturday night but didn’t do anything to disperse the feeling the headliners were somewhat downbeat this year. Thankfully we could escape over to the 6 music stage where the Vaccines gave a lesson in how to steal a festival in an exhilarating hour-long set. Badly Drawn Boy took me back a decade or so Saturday afternoon performing in full Hour of Bewilderment and Seasick Steve was great fun performing the Sunday afternoon slot. Thankfully Sunday night was brought to a fitting end with sterling performances by the Manic Street Preachers and surprisingly Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds who played a set which thankfully covered the Oasis oeuvre alongside that of his new band. Still there was a bit of a feeling that the festival overshadowed their headline acts this year with secret gigs from Ed Sheeran and Thom Yorke.
Sitting outside in the sun basking in the dance work on the Waterfront Stage was always a treat. Rola and Rodriguez, a company based in Madrid, broughtTitanium a sizzling mix of flamenco, hip hop and breakdancing that the women and a fair portion of the men enjoyed for its eye candy as well as its moves. Rambert had there ever dependable Rooster, choreographer Christopher Bruce’s tribute to the Rolling Stones, which saw the company strut, vault and bring irresistible energy to the sound of some of the bands greatest hits. Still it was the East London Dance Company who really took the eye with a thrilling mix of contemporary and street dance which an appreciate Friday evening crowd lapped up.
I wish I had more opportunities just to wander around and catch things. The work in the forest sounded fantastic, an odyssey into the weird and wonderful but by Sunday afternoon was a little sparse, while the comedy I saw from big hitters Alan Davies and Marcus Brigstocke and the half set I saw from Sara Pascoe suggested just sitting in the comedy tent would have been a weekend well spent. I saw nothing in the literature and poetry tent, same with the film tent, and I only ventured into the ever daring cabaret tent to see the naughty Miss Behave’s Gameshow late on Sunday night to bring the festival to an end. All of which suggests that the festival is in fine mettle, with enough stuff to fill a calendar for weeks as it begins its second decade. Bring on next years. I am already counting down the days.
Stand- Chris Goode and Company
Chris Goode’s Stand provides a quiet revolution on the first Friday morning of the Latitude festival. Six actors; three male, three female; sit on high backed chairs, their scripts balanced in front of them like musical scores. They have stories to tell about activism, Goode having created a verbatim piece with its subject being members of society who decided enough was enough and so begin campaigns to activate change. We are lulled in gradually to the stories of these everyday heroes who found causes to fight forand did something about it. In a much more effective way then Russell Brand’s disastrous attempts during the previous election campaign, Goode’s production leaves us believing change is possible.
His way of achieving this is deceptively simple. The actors don’t leave their seats and their is very little dramatic license, it’s simply the actors retelling their subjects stories, with all the pauses, repetitions and hesitations you would expect of people not used to being in the spotlight but with a voice that needs to be heard. Each have their own causes to fight: oil fracking, adopting an orphaned child from Eastern Europe, animal testing factories, protesting against BP’s sponsorship of the Royal Shakespeare Company: each have their own ways of achieving this, from a simple weekly demonstration outside a factory to a stage invasion of the opening night of a new theatre.
It starts in a low key and it never really shifts beyond this but this is gripping verbatim work, given solid and loving performances by its six strong cast. Underscored with an effective musical framework that rumbles and tinkles as the mood dictates this is a simple idea beautifully realised by Goode, the undisputed king of the fringe. Small acts can lead to big change he suggests and it is within all of us to change the world in our own little ways.
Chef- Paines Plough
Chef is a tour-de-force both in its writing and its performance. Sabrina Mahfouz’s Fringe First winning text is a poetic, visceral thrill ride given a performance that matches it blow-by-blow by Jade Anouka that has already won her a Stage acting award and is destined to catapult her onto bigger things.
Anouka portrays a young women who only finds a sense of self-worth when she is forging a career in the kitchen, as she tells us ‘’outside of this I’m not safe.’’ Let down by the men in her life; her boyfriend cheats on her in a nightclub, her dad strangles her in a rage until her breath almost leaves her body; she clings on to the chopping and the stirring that may take her to a better place. The nagging question is whether she is giving the whole story?
The text has a rolling verse structure that explodes like a Uzi in Anouka’s trailblazing performance. Mahfouz has a way with language that marks her out as a theatrical poet, at one point her female protagonist describes her life as ‘darkness so black its blue.’ It’s rich in metaphor and paints colour with almost every word uttered. Anouka relishes this, spilling out a torrent of language like some Beckett heroine whose life depends on it.
There have been a number of brilliant one-women plays recently and this follows Grounded and Flea Bag in showing a women with dreams who in one way or another is screwed over by the world she finds herself in. Whether Mahfouz leaves us with hope at the end of the evening is unsure but what is clear is that here are two exciting talents that should be kept an eye on.
With A Little Bit Of Luck- Paines Plough
With A Little Bit Of Luck is the second in a double bill of Sabrina Mahfouz’s work at Latitude this year following the propulsive Chef.The same weaving of the poetical into the everyday so is again evident here but with diminishing returns. A late night Festive crowd who packed the theatre tent were completely ready to party along to a garage score and when singer Martyna Baker is crooning the hits, with live music created by Gabriel Benn it has the same fizzing energy of the best club nights. Unfortunately the one women play around it, while still possessing turns of phrase and a forward driving momentum that marks Mahfouz out as a unique theatrical voice, doesn’t have the material in the narrative to put it on a par with its predecessor.
Nadia is a young girl, who believes the world is hers to conquer. Alongside her wannabe MC boyfriend we follow her over the course of the hot summer of 2001, at the end of her first year of university, when garage has taken over the airwaves and hope is in the air. Not qualifying for a hardshit fund ‘Nadia loved books but she loved beats more’ she plans on selling ecstasy to help fund her second year. Seroca Davis portrays her in the third person alongside a host of other characters that pop up; most noticeably a policewomen in need of an arrest, an enterprising club owner and her ambitious boyfriend and Davis is a likeable and high energy presence who we can’t help but root for even as she hides drugs in inside herself to get through nightclub security.
Perhaps fittingly it’s the music that dominates in Stef O’Driscoll’s production. Whereas Chef took us into the devastating psyche of a women fighting to keep hope, the hope here remains in the garage beats. It’s a reminder of just how buzzing that scene was and just how many anthemic hits came from it. For a festive crowd it was perfect late night fare, whether it could sustain this type of energy over a traditional theatre run is a little less clear.
The Hogswallop- Lost In Translation Circus
There was undoubtedly a number of people leaving the theatre tent Saturday morning wanting to run away and join the circus. The preceding hour had been so gloriously entertaining, endearingly silly and occasionally mesmerising that there doesn’t seem a better way to live your life then creating improbable acts of human magic. Lost In Translation Circus still classify themselves as an emerging company but this work shows a company more than comfortable in their own skins and with enough stagecraft smarts to ensure that they kept its capacity crowd suitably on edge.
As is almost always the case in circus work, it’s the book that needs the most work. The narrative, what little there is, kind of falls apart under even the slightest scrutiny. Featuring a lost banana, an evil Casanova type radio set and a love story that seems to be based on making an ex jealous, it’s so surreal that I’m not sure any audience member kept up with it. Narrative may not be an essential part of the circus experience but if you’re going to include one, it would probably help to get an expert writer and director in to help craft it.
This is soon forgiven though because each of the acts is so thrillingly staged. A couple of dropped balls aside in the juggling, the acts are as tight as a vice, with particular highlights including a human skipping rope, a trapeze act with a walking frame, a strong man balancing two ladies on his shoulders and an old-fashioned clowning routine on how best to seduce a lady.
When circus works there is nothing that captivates an audience more. The key indicator in a festival to how successful the act is going down is on how many people shuffle out to attend one of the myriad other events. Barely anyone shuffled on the seat, spellbound by the thrilling work on display.
Marcus Brigstocke is now 42 and apparently very angry. His 45-minute set sees him rail against everything, from UKIP to the Tories, against cuts to the NHS and the Greeks treatment by the Germans.
In the heart of Suffolk this may be a risky strategy, as he identifies early on, a large portion of his audience must have voted for the Conservatives in the last election, even if they aren’t prepared to admit it. Consequently his material splits the crowd right down the middle from the left-leaning liberals who applauded his impassioned pleas to fight for the NHS and the more right-leaning voters who were clearly discomfited by the notes he was hitting.
It’s a brave comedian who spends two-thirds of his festive set playing the politics tune but Brigstoke is obviously impassioned on the subjects he raises. There is real venom in the pain he feels for the young who did not vote and have now found themselves royally screwed over by the latest Budget cuts. Similarly the sense of injustice he paints the Greek situation is caught up in a great nightclub analogy where the underage Greek is allowed in and then forced to dance quicker and quicker to German techno.
He ends his set in more familiar stand up territory, a testicular examination where his doctor ends up being a dad from his children’s local primary school, but unfortunately it is a crowd pleaser in a set that has subverted what we can usually expect. Though it leaves the crowd on a happier note you wish he had stuck to his guns and just gone full on Apocalypse Now on Britain’s ills.
Alan Davies certainly knows how to work up a festival crowd. Lunchtime on the first day and there are already queues stretching outside the sauna-like conditions of the comedy tent all waiting to see the comedian who made his name in Jonathan Creek and then became even more popular through his weekly appearances as team captain on QI. What is perhaps forgotten in all the mainstream success is just what a fine stand-up he is. From his first entrance, he holds the crowd in the palm of his hands and proceeds to give a 45 minute masterclass in how to keep them there.
His latest topic is his newly acquired family, with two young children and a wife [the children’s writer Katie Maskell] 12 years his junior, and he has mined his material directly from this. He’s an expert at weaving his set pieces into a relatively cohesive narrative so we go from tales of babysitting to his daughter’s fear of dogs to his accident in a playpen to his early lovemaking with his wife with barely a pause for breath or turn of thought.
Having seen him only in his television persona what is impressively clear is that the stand-up stage is his natural habitat. Even with the noise of the music stages bleeding into the tent and occasionally throwing him off-balance, his routine and punchlines are genuinely snort out loud and kick your feet up funny. As he lies at the top of a children’s playpen, concerned that he has done a ‘’Theo Walcott’’ in snapping his cruciate ligament and worried there is no way out with him without being rescued by a six -year-old paramedic and having the roof cut up you laugh both at the absurdity of the situation and also how natural the concern appears to be when you hear him tell it.
Slightly thrown perhaps by the age of the family audience, his final routine regarding his sex life with his wife is reined in and consequently doesn’t end on perhaps the ‘happy ending’ the piece was building to.
Still, this early door headliner does what is expected of him, completely stealing the show.
Dracula- Action To The Word
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a novel that provides endless inspiration for artists to reinvent. From Christopher Lee’s iconic vampire for Hammer to Ford Francis Coppolla’s version, which recasts the Count as the tragic protagonist, people keep coming back to this origin tale of gothic romance and chilling horror. Action To The Word’s steampunk version turns up the operatic notch to maximum with its beguiling mix of sex, violence, pulsing thrills and moments of downright silliness. It’s a show that encompasses moments of genuine virtuosity when delivery bring out unintentional laughs at lines from a script that works best when it sticks close to its source. When it veers away most lines would easily suit some dodgy direct to DVD horror B movie. It reaches for the stars, occasionally misses by a country mile but, in doing so, provide one of the most entertaining evenings I’ve had in a theatre this year.
For anyone familiar with Forgetting Sarah Marshall and who wished they could see the Dracula puppet musical then this is the real life human version. Nuances are chucked out of the window: these characters feel with everything, sing with passion, play their instruments with manic intensity and shag with a wild abandonment as though it is the last night of their lives. It is sexy as hell, playing with the idea that the vampire bite release a primeval sexual abandon in these Victorian ladies, given compelling performances by Olivia Bromley as Mia, the pretty prim fiancée who fuels Dracula’s obsession with his long-lost love, and Hannah Lee as Lucy the modern women caught in a society that isn’t quite ready for a women with more modern tastes. Jonno Davies is the sexy Count who seduces them.
Its reinterpretation of the songs of Britney Spears and Radiohead goes way beyond the realms of camp rock and, in a piece that starts so faithfully to Stoker’s novel, it proceeds to drop sections of the story, some of the performances don’t match that of the girls and the production never fully establishes time and place. For those not familiar with the source material it may prove a challenge to keep up.
This may be a guilty pleasure of a show; something rather silly, completely overblown but you’re already looking forward to making its acquaintance again.
The hung over Sunday crowds at Latitude were still out in force first thing in the theatre tent to witness the first public performance of 946, Kneehigh’s customary inventive new production from Michael Morpugo’s book The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips. Opening at their home in Cornwall, The Asylum, next weekend, the piece had an understandable rough energy at times but if early indicators are any sign, Kneehigh have found their groove again, following their superlative Dead Dog In A Suitcase, a favourite show from last year.
Stapleton Sands, 1944, and this sleepy Devonshire village is thrown into uproar, asked to leave their homes to allow American GIs chance to practice their military manoeuvres, which will lead to tragic consequences even before they reach the beaches of Normandy. A family show that sheds fresh light on D-Day it has the usual inventive energy, sense of play and splashes of theatrical gold that Emma Rice sprinkles on all her work (she will be much missed when she takes over the reigns of the Globe next year).
The cast, dressed identically in boiler suits and comprising familiar Kneehigh ensemble members Mike Shephard, Craig Johnson, Giles King, Patrycja Kujawska and Katy Owens all have that sense of confidence in their material and each other that comes from working together(and in this case living together) over a number of projects. Denied the ending as the company had to stop mid-flow to ensure the theatre tent didn’t overrun, it’s hard to judge how high on the pantheon this show is on their admittedly high bar. I have a feeling it doesn’t quite get a place on the podium; one too many longeurs, no dazzling coup de theatre that will last in the memory.
However, there is still enough of the usual Kneehigh tropes: lovely detailed and inventive puppetry, a score from Stu Barker that mixes familiar playground songs of the era alongside brand new compositions and the British tradition of men in drag: that shows the company, often imitated, are still the standard bearers for British Theatre Companies.
Fake It Til You Make It- Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn
Bryony Kimmings, is an artist who seems to be growing up. Past shows have dealt with the foolishness of being young, from trying to track down who it was that gave her an STI, while asking the audience to trim their pubic hair, which became a moustache (Sex Idiot), to 7 Day Drunk, which explored her dependency on booze. There is a sense that this queen of provocation is maturing, visibly showing with child here and in a committed long term relationship. This new work, co-created by her boyfriend, Tim Grayburn, explores his own dealing with clinical depression and how this has affected them both as indiviuals and as a collective. It’s a more mature work but still has all that explosion of honesty that has marked her out over the past few years.
Grayburn, a one night stand who turned into the love of her life, seems to have the world at his feet: a job as an account manager for a top advertising firm, Calvin Klein catalogue model looks but with a history of mental illness which he, like many men, has never talked about. Discovering the anti-depressants by accident, Kimmings asks how can a man who on the surface seems so happy, kind and positive, be taking drugs designed to stop him from feeling. Tackling it together we explore the tender moments of his revealing how it all started to his gradual episode as he weaves himself off the drugs.
Grayburn is not a natural performer but this is weaved into the work so that his awkwardness in performance becomes endearing rather than tiresome. Moments that on paper read glib and embarrassing, such as an interpretative dance on the symptoms of clinical depression, become in performance the only natural way of expressing it.
It’s billed as a love story, and that’s what we get: a couple very much in love, tackling an illness that may not have a cure but can be controlled. It is bracingly honest, funny and heartbreakingly moving; it is a very fine work indeed, probably the finest of her career to date. As the audience rose as one at the end, tears choking us and them, it is clear that this is a tale that affects us all, either as someone who suffers from or knows someone that does. It is less angry and edgy then her previous work as she enters a new phase in her development. It is also her most important.
Glorilla- Spitz and Co
Spitz and Co’s first show Gloriator received great praise and a clutch of awards over its journey in the past couple of years. Their second show, Glorilla, has the curse of the second album, the ideas that sustained their first work seems strained and an admittedly sparse crowd seemed more bemused than amused, though its dash of knockabout comedy at least had the younger ones in the audience tittering.
We have gathered to hear the lecture of the ‘acclaimed’ French actress Madame Delenauf on her adventures as an animal communicator and her recent visit to the jungles, aided by her hap-hazardous, put upon, assistant Josephine. Finding herself encountering a rather over an amorous gorilla it parodies films such as Out Of Africa where you always feel the humans relationships with the animals are only ever one step away from intimate.
There is a lot of material crammed into an hour, bits which work: a night of passion in a cramped tent seems particularly pertinent after three nights camping and there is a funny section where there is mistranslation at the UN but most of which have been seen in shows like this many times before, from malfunctioning sets to misfiring props. It lacks originality and the audience interaction sections never really seem to go anywhere
Perhaps it’s a show which doesn’t suit the festival environment, there was loud musical theatre warbling coming from the cabaret tent or perhaps we’re just suffering fatigue as the festival drew to an end. At the moment though Glorilla feels like its Spitz and Co’s difficult second album. If they’d prefer it to be Back To Black rather than One Way Ticket To Hell, they may need another visit to the drawing board
Miss Behave’s Gameshow
After festival headliners the Manic Street Preachers and Noel Gallagher and his Flying Birds closed Latitude 15 with anthemic hit after hit, there was only way to bring a terrific festival to a close. Part game show, part variety show and part dirty disco Miss Behave’s Gameshow has the spirt of the best cabaret; a touch of glamour, a frisson of danger, a sprinkling of naughtiness. It was exactly the tonic for a tired, sun-kissed crowd to have one last hedonistic night before tents were taken down and normal life resumed.
Split into those with I-Phones and those without, the two teams are asked to compete in a number of rounds and challenges with a special prize for the winning team. From name that tune to downing of pints and ‘what will people do for a point’, there is a simplistic charm to the work. Our host Miss Behave claims the world is fucked so we might as well enjoy it and it is very rare to feel a tent so in unison with each other.
The game show is so addictive that the turns could almost seem like an afterthought but they ensured that there was enough subversion, drag turns, smutty humour and naked flesh on display to satisfy gay, straight and everyone who identifies in-between. The special prize is big enough for the whole audience to enjoy, a final cathartic moment before the guilty pleasures ran around the tent and people danced the night away.