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Latitude 2016: Theatre Arena review – ‘a glorious, sun-blasted retreat’

Latitude Festival 2016 at Henham Park, Suffolk. Photo: Jen O'Neill

The Southwold fields of Latitude have never felt more like an idyllic bubble than in 2016: the year in which everyone cool died and everything that was left got set on fire. Occasional, ill-advised glimpses of smartphones aside (curse you, newly installed 4G), Latitude is a glorious, sun-blasted retreat from the sharp-edges of the world.

If Latitude is an escape pod, the theatre arena is the bubble within the bubble, where nobody steps on your toes or spills beer down your front. It kicks off in style with Landscape With Monsters, by Yaron Lifschitz and the lauded Circa ensemble. A performance of extreme industrial acrobatics and body-punishing circus, it evokes a landscape of dehumanising urban dwellings where people are crammed into boxes and the weight of existence is bone-crushing. Each vignette is funny, characterful and evocative, each set-piece flirts with the impossible.

It’s a more successful premiere than the similarly beloved Theatre Ad Infinitum manages with its new work, Bucket List. The story of Mexican factory workers struggling under exploitation in the shadow of the North American Free Trade Agreement, it swerves into a Kill Bill-style revenge drama, shedding credibility as it flies into the absurd. The presentation as a playground game is typically audacious for this chameleonic company, but more work is needed before Bucket List’s content lives up to its theme.

The Lyric Hammersmith has turned up with even less preparation, in its defiantly messy take on The Importance of Being Earnest, but it turns out to be a total crowd-pleasing joy. The presence of Great British Bake Off’s Mel Giedroyc is sent up mercilessly as she tears into the part of Lady Bracknell, with endless shrieks of: “A haaandbaaag” echoing across the tent, as the ramshackle ensemble belts out Smiths covers and flings cucumber sandwiches around in an irresistibly chaotic side-swipe at British cultural imperialism.

An early outing for Mark Thomas’ new show The Red Shed offers a similarly mixed bag of affection and anger, as a paean to Wakefield’s Labour Club-cum-venue bleeds out into a heartfelt and often hilarious take on the wounds of the miners’ strike, replete with the characters Thomas has encountered during a recent Yorkshire pilgrimage. It strains a little too hard to wrestle its spoken-word content into a theatrical form, but it’s a poignant show of solidarity and compassion.

But it might be Gob Squad which steals the weekend. Super Night Shot is an adventure pre-filmed in the hour before the show begins, played out in a four-way split-screen projection, as the festival site becomes the location for a camcorder spree-of culture-jamming brilliance where anything could happen. If Latitude is a playground, Gob Squad is the kid who has had too many Smarties and is playing stupid and dangerous games on the swings.

Read more coverage of Latitude Festival 2016

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A chaotic but enjoyable year in Latitude’s theatre arena, where Gob Squad and Circa take the weekend.