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Latitude Festival 2017 review – ‘eclectic bill of exciting artists’

Latitude Festival 2017. Photo: Sarah Koury Latitude Festival 2017. Photo: Sarah Koury
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Latitude is my local festival. I’ve been coming since 2009. I saw Damon Albarn in a thunderstorm, Bloc Party before they split up, Suede before I knew who they were, and the xx before you did. But Latitude professes to be more than just a music festival, and it’s only in the last two years, as the mosh-pits have got younger and the bands less familiar, that I’ve discovered how true that is.

Theatre, poetry, dance, performance and more always jostle for space on an eclectic bill of exciting artists and theatremakers. Satirical verse alongside sensual storytelling. Chaotic cabaret alongside cutting-edge comedy.

2017’s line-up might be thinner than usual, but it’s still a smorgasbord of talent, smeared across an idyllic arena of big tops, burger vans and bars: London’s Royal Court and the Old Vic, Sh!t Theatre, Shon Dale-Jones and Luke Wright. Theatre fans aren’t spoiled for choice, exactly, but they’re well catered for.

Rona Morison and Charlie Fink in Cover My Tracks at Latitude Festival 2017. Photo: Lauren Maccabee
Rona Morison and Charlie Fink in Cover My Tracks at Latitude Festival 2017. Photo: Lauren Maccabee

In the Speakeasy – this year’s amalgamation of previous festivals’ poetry and literary tents – there’s John Osborne’s Circled in the Radio Times (★★★★) and Daniel Bye’s Instructions for Border Crossing (★★). Osborne’s piece, refined at the Brighton Fringe and destined for the Edinburgh Fringe, is a wistful contemplation of loss, and of how the changing nature of TV reflects the changing nature of our lives.

Osborne, a floppy-mopsy teddy bear bedraggled in an over-sized jumper, gently constructs his meditation around the memory of his grandfather, and the reflections he had upon finding a hoard of enthusiastically graffitied copies of the Radio Times after his death. It’s deceptively layered and delightfully cosy storytelling. A 15-tog hug of a show.

Bye’s show, also headed to Edinburgh, is less accessible. Part lecture, part experimental storytelling drama, it uses inventive audience participation to tackle both the migrant crisis and a middle-class liberal’s guilty powerlessness, precariously structuring itself around the work of a renegade, Banksy-esque artist. It’s diverting and deep, but also frustratingly difficult to get a handle on.

No such problems with Luke Wright’s superb Frankie Vah (★★★★), popping up here before Edinburgh too. It’s in the same vein as his last one-man verse play, What I Learned from Johnny Bevan, mining the past for contemporary political comment in a whirlwind of spitting poetry and jangling guitar.

With Frankie Vah, he travels back to Thatcher’s Britain to tell the rollicking story of a left-wing ranting poet. It’s emotive, engrossing stuff, and I liked it even better at Latitude than I did at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.

In the theatre arena, Charlie Fink and David Greig’s Cover My Tracks, the Royal Court’s Manwatching and Theatre Re’s The Nature of Forgetting all make appearances after their London runs. Cover My Tracks, with Rona Morison replacing Jade Anouka, is right at home, its angsty, hipster story of two people living on life’s edge scored with acoustic elegance by Noah and the Whale frontman Fink.

Seann Walsh performing at Latitude Festival 2017. Photo: Sarah Koury
Seann Walsh performing at Latitude Festival 2017. Photo: Sarah Koury

Manwatching, a brilliantly funny and remarkably revealing anonymous monologue delving into the female sexual psyche, is delivered confidently but conservatively by comedian Seann Walsh. And Theatre Re’s tricksy, nostalgia-tinged physical show offers a mirage-filled mediation on dementia.

Dale-Jones’ new show, also in the theatre tent, is very Dale-Jones. The rambling, shambling, extremely likeable Welshman follows last year’s The Duke with Me and Robin Hood (★★★), a typically meandering story of one man’s struggle with inequality that flits between 2017 to 1975 with unshowy deftness.

Mixing self-effacing charm and his trademark dalliance with fact and fantasy, Dale-Jones slyly reveals the fiction we all live our lives by. It’s not watertight, but it’s earnest, engrossing and Edinburgh-bound, too.

Other work in the theatre tent is less impressive. Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s Notes of a Native Song, a “concert novel” exploring the life of James Baldwin hailing from Harlem, suffers in translation. Clod Ensemble’s On the High Road, an intensely physical piece staged entirely in monochrome on an Escherian staircase set, never transcends its aesthetic. And Paul Barritt’s Cat and Mouse – a live-scored cartoon fable exploring capitalism, fetishism, justice and everything in between – is as headache-inducingly grating as it is sledgehammer blunt.

The most galvanising theatre, paradoxically, is found in the cabaret tent, where  Sh!t Theatre’s new show, DollyWould, and Middle Child Theatre’s glorious All We Ever Wanted Was Everything (★★★★) both earn well-deserved standing ovations.

DollyWould is still evolving prior to Edinburgh, but All We Ever Wanted Was Everything is already a fully fledged experience – a raucous, riotous 75 minutes of storytelling, shot through with pop, poetry and politics, evoking a time-hopping tale of doomed lives in the group’s native Hull. It’s marshalled with magnetic vim by the mercurial Marc Graham, the coolest frontman at the festival.

Throw in some thought-provoking works-in-progress – Gary McNair’s Locker Room Talk and Mark Thomas’ Predictable – and the result is a truly mixed bag of joyous hits and disappointing misses, provocative highlights and frustrating lowlights, nestled in this Eden of the Suffolk coast. Plus Mumford and Sons. They’re great.

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A hugely mixed bag of joyous triumphs and frustrating failures in the Suffolk countryside