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HighTide Festival review – ‘new writing designed to provoke’ in Aldeburgh

Nick Sidi and Sarah Ridgeway in Harrogate, HighTide Festival, Aldeburgh. Nick Sidi and Sarah Ridgeway in Harrogate, HighTide Festival, Aldeburgh.

Over the last nine years, HighTide has established itself as a major platform for new writing. This year, the festival has undergone some significant changes, moving from spring to autumn and from the pretty Suffolk town of Halesworth to the, possibly even more picturesque, town of Aldeburgh. Its approach to programming, however, remains much the same – new writing designed to provoke – and this year’s line-up feels like one of the strongest to date.

Of the three pieces which form the spine of the 2015 festival, EV Crowe’s new play Brenda is perhaps the hardest to pin down. It’s an intentionally slippery piece about a young woman readying herself to make a plea to an unseen panel for a much coveted flat; only there’s more at stake here – Brenda is not entirely convinced she is a human being, not a proper one with proper wants and needs.

Crowe has written a play about the way we construct ourselves as people, the performance of living. As a piece of writing it’s intriguingly tangled, if almost too liquid a thing at times, frustratingly so – but Caitlin McLeod’s uneasy production is also occasionally frustrating, although it ends with an incredibly vivid image

Luke Norris’s So Here We Are is a more conventional piece; a portrait of four old school friends in mourning, it’s also an account of a group of young men in stasis, enacting the same old routines, even during this period of grieving. Norris excels at comedy, and the banter between the friends, even at its most daft and banal, is packed with bladed little pay-offs and a real sense of ease – it really does feel like these are people who have known each other for years.

It loses momentum towards the end, and the usually excellent Jade Anouka is stuck with a fairly thankless role as the girlfriend of the deceased Frankie, but the play’s opening scene is an absolute joy, really nicely done – it’s only when Norris starts to over-explain things in flashback that it begins to unravel.

Of the three new pieces – Anders Lustgarten’s timely Lampedusa is also getting a second airing – Al Smith’s Harrogate is perhaps the hardest hitting, a knife-like piece of writing performed on a narrow thrust stage, long like a tongue and laboratory white. The play is an unpicking of a middle-aged father’s relationship with his adolescent daughter, and their closeness, which initially feels admirable and interesting, comes to feel increasingly problematic. This is a play that sets out to make its audience question where the line lies between paternal pride and something more insidious. It’s brilliantly performed by Sarah Ridgeway and Nick Sidi, who both grasp the complexities of the material, and of all the festival’s new pieces it’s the one likely to live longest in the memory.

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A strong line-up of new writing from HighTide in its new Aldeburgh home