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Latitude Festival 2018 review at Henham Park, Suffolk – ‘a playground for gig theatre’

Latitude Festival at Henham Park, Suffolk
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Looking back, it was probably inevitable. Latitude – the self-styled “queen of arts festivals”, the family-friendly, gluten-free, Moroccan-topped hummus pot of the outdoor summer season – has always had gigs and has always had theatre. Now, it’s got gig theatre, and lots of it. In fact, as its 13th edition proves, it is one of the most productive playgrounds for gig-theatre in the country.

And it’s not difficult to see why. The atmosphere at Latitude is the perfect petri-dish for work that’s not quite the one and not quite the other. The informal arrangement of pop-up theatres, open-sided tents, and forest clearings. The ethereal strains of unheard-of indie bands bleeding across the site. The scarcity – unlike at, say, Reading – of ket-sniffing estate agents emptying pint-glasses of piss on your head.

This year’s theatre arena plays host to some seriously exciting names. Dom Coyote, Bryony Kimmings, HighRise Theatre, Action to the Word. Three of our most promising companies – Middle Child, Nabokov and Not Too Tame – collaborating as the Push Things Forward Collective, spinning festival-goers stories into shows all day long, as well as performing their own shows. There’s plenty of flavours to choose from, just like at the award-winning beetroot burger stall next door.

There’s other stuff too, of course. If musicals are more your thing (don’t ask me to explain the distinction between musicals and gig theatre, but trust me, there is one), then there’s Suffrageddon, the hip-hop show about the fight for the female vote, co-produced by the podcast the Guilty Feminist and probably the closest we’ll get to a British Hamilton any time soon.

Latitude Festival at Henham park, Suffolk

If poetry floats your boat, then there’s a typically blistering hour of new work from the incomparable Luke Wright, weaving together the personal and the political with his customary verve. And if it’s tear-jerking one-man agit-prop that gets you going, then Mark Thomas has got you covered with his new show examining the state of the NHS. Thomas is an experienced war-horse of a raconteur, and he rides into battle again here, wielding his unique blokey theatricalism to devastating effect as he splices anecdotes with recorded interviews.

But it’s the gig theatre that stands out, and none more so than Anna Jordan’s Pop Music (★★★★), a new piece co-produced by Paines Plough and Birmingham Rep. Set during a wedding reception that’s winding down, it’s a whistle-stop tour through the lives of G and Kayla, two erstwhile school-mates, now singletons in their mid-thirties looking to dance their troubles away with nostalgic hit after nostalgic hit.

It’s a touching, lightly poetic story – as much a celebration of pop’s power to paper over the cracks as anything else – delivered energetically into microphones by Rakesh Boury and Katherine Kotz. In between shouted conversations and bursts of memory, they dad-dance to club banger after club-banger. The Spice Girls, All Saints, Clean Bandit, Chaka Khan, House of Pain, Beyonce, Oasis.

James Grieve’s production is brilliantly put together, the cadences of G and Kayla’s stories syncing perfectly with the tunes. You can’t help but bop along. This is gig theatre that could fill a stadium. Warm, wonderful stuff that leaves you with a feeling as bright as the neon glowstick it thrusts in your hand.

Middle Child’s One Life Stand. Photo: Matt Eachus

Middle Child’s show, coming straight from a multi-venue run in the company’s native Hull, is a different taste entirely – a stripped back meditation on the sexualisation of smartphone society. Written by Eve Nicol with music from James Frewer and Glaswegian duo Honeyblood, One Life Stand (★★★★) intertwines the stories of three people on the same night, all swiping away in search of fulfilment.

It’s a show invaded by technology. Tinder chats, Instagram stories and Twitter notifications interrupt incessantly, constantly promising something else, something more, something exciting elsewhere. It’s good to see a show that incorporates this world authentically, without gimmick, and that articulately exposes the frustrations and thrills that come hand-in-hand with the sexual side of social media. It’ll be well-suited to Summerhall’s Roundabout in Edinburgh this August.

And it’s actually got a lot in common with Deserts (★★★), a short new play by Sam Steiner (of Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons fame), produced by East Anglia’s own HighTide. Just 20 minutes long, and performed with a dispassionate curiosity by Sion Alun Davies and Sarah Ridgeway, it’s a simple story of two teenagers whose first sexual experience is interrupted in a disturbing way, darkly funny and dangerously provocative.

It’s not all hits, though. Christopher York’s Build a Rocket (★★) follows in the footsteps of Gary Owen’s Iphigenia In Splott, presenting a female monologue about a working class woman struggling with her shitty life. It’s capably performed by Serena Manteghi, but, perhaps because of Owen’s success, these shows are everywhere now, and they’re increasingly derivative and increasingly problematic. They have to be exceptional or innovative to stand out, and Build A Rocket just isn’t.

It’s a similar story with Nele Needs A Holiday: The Musical (★★), a short but sweet show from the Belgian musician of the same name. It’s fine – a quirky, off-beat story about a girl that moves to London to pursue her dream of becoming a globally famous pop star – but nothing more. Light-hearted and laid-back, but navel-gazing and substance-less too.

The festival, as ever, belonged to the cool kids: it’s the gig theatre line-up that’s made Latitude special this year. Few other environments can provide such a conducive atmosphere for the genre. It thrives in the sandy, sun-kissed slopes of Suffolk, and long may it continue to do so.

Middle Child: ‘We want to push the boundaries of what gig theatre can do’

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The 13th edition of Suffolk’s Latitude Festival proves a productive playground for gig theatre